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SCRUTINY | Voicebox Opera Takes On The future With ‘La Voix Humaine’

By Paula Citron on February 20, 2021

Miriam Khalil
Miriam Khalil (Photo: Shayne Gray)

VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert/La Voix Humaine, The Play and The Opera, written by Jean Cocteau and composed by Francis Poulenc, drama consulting by Guillermo Silva-Marin, videography by Great Northern Productions, streaming online, Feb 5 to 19.

This is a better late than never review of La Voix Humaine, because attention must be paid. The double bill of Jean Cocteau’s play (1928) and Francis Poulenc’s opera (1958) is a notable one for several reasons. First, this is VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert’s (OIC) first original digital production. Second, the program features three outstanding talents in actor Chilina Kennedy, soprano Mariam Khalil and pianist Narmina Afandiyeva. Third, we have to take this production as a sign of the virtual times, and all that that entails.

Cocteau’s monodrama features a woman we only know as Elle (She). After a five-year relationship, her lover has left her for someone else, and this is their last phone call. Elle is an emotional mess. During their relationship, she has wrapped herself completely up in her lover, and as a result, has nothing left — an object lesson if ever there was for current-day feminism. This is the type of role, whether spoken or sung, that an actor/singer can really get her teeth into, and both women give superb performances.

Kennedy’s Elle is clearly of today, replete with a cell phone, slouch socks and a seemingly makeup-less look. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any reference to who did the English adaptation, but it is filled with current colloquialisms including the F-word. Just the way Kennedy moves and carries herself, is all contemporaneous. She is absolutely natural and comfortable in the way she manoeuvres herself about her bedroom. Khalil, on the other hand, is more formal, because we are back in time. She does, after all, have to tote an old-fashioned, pre-cordless telephone around with her. She wears bright red nail polish, make-up, and obvious pieces of jewellery. She clearly has a vanity table. Khalil’s Elle is ultra-feminine in her sitting, standing and lying down, while Kennedy is not held back by any old-fashioned convention of deportment. This dichotomy of characters, although they are telling the same story, makes for two completely different experiences on the part of the viewer. Another point of interest is how Poulenc interpreted the play — what he chose to leave in the opera, and what he left out.

Kennedy is a marvel at conveying the arc of Elle’s journey, which is an emotional rollercoaster of sudden shifts in emotion. She’s tender one minute, needy the next. She lashes out, and then pours sweetness. Her code word is mercurial. Khalil’s personality is less complex because she is more measured and deliberate. You feel she is older and more mature than Kennedy. While the latter just blurts out things, Khalil’s conversation feels more calculating. Kennedy’s Elle is a time bomb; Khalil’s Elle is a slow-burning volcano. Both women envelop the character of Elle absolutely, and their performances convey deep and abiding passion.

I have to say that Poulenc’s modernist score, expertly interpreted by music director/pianist Narmina Afandiyeva, adds richness to Cocteau’s play. The tighter, honed-down structure of the storyline is also an asset in the opera. At times the music cradles the voice like a melodic cocoon; at other times, it acts like narrative accents with short staccato bursts of commentary. Soprano Khalil is capable of both soaring emotions, and almost whisper-like crooning. She just doesn’t sing; she emotes as well in very dramatic fashion. I do wish, however, that Khalil had kept the telephone cord wrapped around her neck rather than remove it. The opera ending is stronger if we think that Elle kills herself (which you can’t do with a cell phone). What’s the point of having a telephone with a cord if you don’t use it?

I do have one strong criticism about the production, however. I know OIC probably had a budget of around $2.57, but the one thing from stopping this film from being a class-A act is the cheap set. It just looked wrong. I wish there had been enough money to bring in a real set designer. Silva-Marin, who is listed as “décor” did his best with white furniture, screens and curtains, but it wasn’t even close in look to what it should be. The inadequacies of a thrown-together set were made all the more acute by the wonderful performances of Kennedy and Khalil. So yes, the set, or lack thereof, really bothered me.

As Silva-Marin said in his intermission remarks, the pandemic has made artistic directors chose to improvise and innovate with digital programming as a tool of survival, and congratulations to OIC for coming up with an original production. They may have not spent money on a set, but they did in the videography. Great Northern Productions (Ryan and Rick Harper) is credited for the video and audio component. Filmed at the company’s own home, the Edward Jackman Centre, the potency of the three cameras really showed in the edited version, with Silva-Marin and Ryan Harper working together on that aspect. We have full face, side face, wide shots, medium shots, long shots, overhead shots. The camera at all times follows the character, and from every angle. In fact, the three cameras cover every aspect of that woman and her bedroom, but never the same for each. The play and the opera look completely different.

In conclusion, the company has even coined a cute name for their home studio, namely, OICinema Central. To me, this means they mean business, and that original productions will become their métier during a time of plague or beyond. Whether live streamed, or made for digital film, OIC has taken on the future.

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Paula Citron
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