VO finds its voice in La voix humaine

VO finds its voice in La voix humaine

Melissa Ratcliff

It certainly goes without saying that 2020 has brought unfathomable change to the opera world, and performing arts in general. Some companies have closed their doors, announced crippling debts, insolvency, or are simply waiting out the pandemic to perform. Vancouver Opera, on the other hand, has created and released an entirely digital season, using local artists, unusual venues, and lesser-known small works to create something entirely different - an on-demand season.

While large companies like the Met have seen success with on-demand opera services, many smaller companies have been unable or unwilling to compete with the behemoth that is Met-On-Demand. But necessity being the mother of invention, VO has launched their virtual season with flying colours in this intimate and soulful rendition of Poulenc’s La voix humaine.

The more I watched, the more it felt like I was intruding on this incredibly personal moment.

Unusual for a large company, La voix humaine is a short opera (under one hour) with a single, unnamed cast member and a single set. The story is of a woman on the phone with her former lover, and her gradual mental decline as she finds out he’s in love with someone else.

In the title role known simply as “Elle” (her), is mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel. Lebel, a Vancouver native, sing the role with consummate skill and sensitivity. While the role is originally written for a soprano, Lebel meets the challenge ably, and never once sounds like the role was anything other than a perfect fit. Her French is also superb, while there are subtitles in the recording, I rarely needed them because her diction was excellent and clear.

(A note on the technical side - if you’re watching the recording from a computer, the subtitles appear fine. If you’re casting from a device to a smart TV or Chromecast, the subtitles may not appear if you’re casting a tab rather than casting from the YouTube link directly.)

The performance felt like a woman genuinely wandering her apartment in despair.

As the story continues, Elle’s descent into despair becomes clearer, and Lebel portrays this with genuine emotion. Her facial expressions change dramatically as she tries to keep her voice clear on the phone, and the more I watched, the more it felt like I was intruding on this incredibly personal moment, and got swept away in the despair and hopelessness of the story.

With a digital performance, I was worried that the staging would be that of a play, or a movie, done in dozens of cuts, or the vocal recording would be compromised, or not recorded faithfully. None of these were the case. While the video used multiple camera angles, they helped accentuate the story greatly, flashing between close-ups, distance shots, and even overhead camera angles. The audio recording was superb, it absolutely felt like a live opera from the best seat in the house, and neither the vocalist nor the audio technicians sacrificed the size and resonance of the sound.

The performance was staged at the Chan Centre, though was unrecognizable with the brilliant set and props. Elle’s small apartment is mapped out on the floor, with each room being furnished, and her moving seamlessly between them. The set pieces were subtle and period appropriate, setting the tone well without getting in the way. From a vintage fridge and clawfoot tub, to a small dog bowl on the floor of the kitchen, everything in the set was purposeful and helped tell the story.

The entire season ahead is a veritable showcase of local talent.

Rather than the standard orchestral score, VO opted to accompany this production with piano, which suited the space and the intimacy of the production very well. Kinza Tyrrell on piano brought exquisite sensitivity to the difficult score, always matching the tone of each scene perfectly and seamlessly.

(l-r) Rachel Peake, Mireille Lebel, and Kinza Tyrrell, of Vancouver Opera's 2020 production of La voix humaine.

The direction under Rachel Peake was subtle and very real. It’s difficult to mention the directing at all, because the performance felt like a woman genuinely wandering her apartment in despair. Though that speaks to the simplicity and subtlety of the staging - so real that you forget it’s there. Peake managed this new form with great sensitivity, bringing the audience right into the room and making it feel real.

Finally, a huge congratulations are due to Vancouver Opera. The entire season ahead is a veritable showcase of local talent, and it’s phenomenal to see so many local artists in the slate for this year, and hope it’s a sign of things to come.

This production has been a huge redirect for VO, and they have coped with it with creativity and great success, both artistically and technologically.

Grab your subscription to Vancouver Opera’s digital 2020-21 season right here.

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