Festival 2018’s Ne Quittez Pas: a reimagined La voix humaine has an stellar cast for a classic play with an intrepid new prologue.
The Theatre of the Living Arts is set up like a nightclub. Some grizzly guy lights up a cigar at one of the tables. He is sitting by the stage and I am sure he would be thrown out by the management. Wrong. He is the management – or, rather, he (Ames Adamson) is playing the owner of this raucous French nightclub. In comes the pianist, who calmly ignores the owner’s diatribe and sits down and makes the piano sparkle with brilliant fingerwork and the music of Francis Poulenc at its finest. The owner locks him in and leaves.
The pianist, bothered by thunderous knocking at the door, opens it to three young people who are characters distilled from Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel, Les Enfants Terribles. Mary Tuomanen plays Lise/Elizabeth with wild energy and a Jean Seberg fatalistic daring. She and her brother, Paul (Marc Bendavid), have a naïve young man (Edward Nelson) in tow and bend him and the pianist to their will. Wild tergiversations and torrid dance propel Lise and Marc through recitations of snippets of Guillaume Apollinaire and Cocteau. Le jeune homme/young man sings Poulenc songs with the impeccable collaboration of pianist/music director Christopher Allen, creating a hauntingly penetrating sound in the cavernous cabaret. By the end of the act, le jeune homme has sung while being poked, caressed, and even tied up on the floor – nothing seems to be able to stop that outstanding baritone voice.
This romp through music, poetry, and devilish insanity was directed by James Darrah, (Breaking the Waves), served as a prelude to La voix humaine. Darrah, along with Mary Tuomanen and Marc Bendavid made the first act of Ne Quittez Pas into a revelatory vehicle for the musical talents of Christopher Allen and Edward Nelson.
The second half is the actual Jean Cocteau play, La voix humaine/The Human Voice, with the original music for piano and voice by Francis Poulenc. Christopher Allen did a masterful job with the score, which lacks the pearly beauty of the Poulenc songs. The musical dullness is enlivened by Patricia Racette, who plays (Elle/She) who telephones her former lover. The nuances of voice and expression that Ms. Racette gives to this role make it thrilling. She sings in excellent French and takes the character from a cheerful greeting and well wishes for her ex-lover to a slow simmer. In the end, she lets her emotions boil over into irreparable despair.
The play, La Voix Humaine, which Cocteau so loved after Poulenc set it to music, is fascinating as a story of how the telephone disembodies the voice – still relevant in these tech-frenzied times. James Darrah was prescient in knowing that the rather staid music of La Voix Humaine truly needed the boost of both Cocteau’s wild enfant terribles and Poulenc’s beautiful songs.
The star quality of both Edward Nelson and Patricia Racette, put meat on what could have been a meager framework. Opera Philadelphia, with New Works Administrator Sarah Williams, found world-class talent for this production, turning what might seem like forgotten and neglected works into a poignant and poetic musical experience.
[Ne Quittez Pas: a reimagined La voix humaine September 22, 23, 27, 29, and 30 at Theatre of Living Arts, 334 South Street, Philadelphia. For tickets and more information see operaphila.org]