Roman Fever and La Voix Humaine | Pegasus Opera Company

Double bills can be tricky things to review because each of the two elements can vary wildly. Although linked dramatically with women telling their stories, La Voix Humaine and Roman Fever are very different operas. Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine is effectively a monologue in which Elle (to some extent an everywoman character whose name literally means ‘She’) confronts her lover – after a series of frustrating crossed lines and intrusions on a mid-twentieth century telephone.

As the story progresses – with humour thanks to breath-taking pacing and phrasing – we learn more about her specifically. We discover she is an actress confronting the aging she observes in her own dressing room mirror and how she misses the diminutive pet names by which her lover once called her and that she took rather more than one sleeping pill the night before. Nadine Benjamin’s performance is exquisite. She embodies the character with simultaneous profundity and levity. Although La Voix Humaine (based on Jean Cocteau’s prose play of the same name) is seen as embracing absurdist and dada theatrical elements, it is also heart-wrenchingly real – providing the audience with the emotional engagement and pathos of an extended aria delivered by a first-class performer who brings the best of voice and characterisation together. At different times I found myself moved to both laughter and tears at moments I had not expected during this 40-minute performance. A one-sided telephone call in which resignation and the very nature of loneliness and love are explored is not saccharine or trite but universal and cathartic – leaving all my senses stimulated and my thoughts provoked by this triumphant marriage of music, voice and story.

Alison Buchanan and Bernadine Pritchett. Roman Fever. Photo by Dominique Nok.
Alison Buchanan and Bernadine Pritchett. Roman Fever. Photo by Dominique Nok.

Roman Fever, also conducted by Rebecca Tong and directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE, is written in a conversational mode as two New York society ladies’ – Grace Ansley (Alison Buchanan) and Alida Slade (Bernadine Pritchett) – reminiscences about their last trip to Rome turn into something rather more bitter and confrontational. Whereas the action of La Voix Humaine takes place in front of us – even if we hear details of the night before or expectations of the next hours – Roman Fever relies heavily on decades-old memories for its dramatic tension, save one real-time revelation in the exchange between the women. Hagemann’s unusual use of waltz, like Strauss’s Electra, amps up the passive-aggression of the confrontation as the stakes get higher. The opera also relies on a certain Straussian dissonance which echoes the barbed words the women exchange. Buchanan and Pritchett more than admirably deliver their roles, but I found myself restless in the telling. Whereas I was rapt from the minute Elle opened her mouth in La Voix Humaine and fell deeper and deeper into step with her longings (“I just wanted to live a crazy life”) and laments (“I preferred when you said ‘where did you get that irresistible little face from?’”), I was less transported by the pointed chatter of Alida and Grace.

Although both staged with projections and a degree of haze on the lighting, La Voix Humaine uses shadows (in almost a Hitchcockian manner) and the singular image of the red wall-mounted landline to intensify the action – building its suspense and foreboding. Roman Fever relies on a more literal setting with the women at a café engaged in knitting, cocktail drinking and busy work (with familiar operatic entrances onto a piazza) but with the presence of the Coliseum projected. Somehow the mix of the here-and-now and the ghosts of the past doesn’t quite manage to straddle both realistic and imagistic visual approaches, despite the work’s wilful dissonance. In contrast, La Voix Humaine feels more holistic – taking us down an emotional vortex with both mirth and pathos. The coexisting nuance and richness of La Voix Humaine are rare and wonderful entities to behold – supported at every level in its staging and performance. Roman Fever as source material is classically operatic but doesn’t feel as substantial or satisfying as its companion piece in this staging. However, as a double bill, thanks to the unmissable supernova that is this production of La Voix Humaine, the entire show is gratifying and worth seeing.

4 Stars

Review by Mary Beer

Roman Fever and The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine) will be staged at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London NW1 5HT on Friday 12 April, 7.30pm, Saturday 13 April 7.30pm and Sunday 14 April, 2.30pm 2024. Tickets are £15 conc, £25, £35.

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