Women who have been abandoned are a motif running through both short works on Seattle Opera’s current double bill, one by a lover, the other by her family. And in the second, the protagonist is also forced to abandon her son, then chooses to abandon her convent and her life. Both women are recognizable as is their agony, and both operas were wrenching to watch on Saturday’s opening night at McCaw Hall.
Francis Poulenc’s 1959 La Voix Humaine takes an intense 40 minutes. A woman known only as Elle, whose lover of five years has declared the affair over, is on what is probably her last telephone call with him. She prowls her bedroom, telling him alternately that she quite understands, that she’s fine, and the next saying she loves him, calling him endearments and lying through her teeth. All the time you see her distress, particularly when the vagaries of the French telephone system cut off the call.
The opera rings true and can feel acutely uncomfortable to witness; true because librettist Jean Cocteau, composer Poulenc and the soprano it was written for, Denise Duval, all were coping with this same situation and wrote their own raw feelings into it.
Soprano Nuccia Focile, familiar in many roles at Seattle Opera, embodies the part, her voice changing from brittle calm and sensible to rising hysteria and barely controlled desperation. While her words are clear to hear as the composer intended, supertitles help for those not fluent in French, and the orchestra makes obvious the meaning of the words we don’t hear, those of the lover who is leaving.
Conductor Gary Thor Wedow does a fine job of shaping the flow and keeping the expressive and tonal music from overwhelming the singer, and both he and Focile have masterly control of the pregnant pauses which dot the score.
Puccini’s Suor Angelica begins in completely different fashion, with serene music in the garden of a convent dedicated to the Virgin Mary. We see nuns quietly going about their familiar routines. La Zia Principessa, head of a noble family demanding high standards of its members and ruthless to those that transgress, arrives to see Suor Angelica, her niece. Angelica has been at the nunnery seven years, banished there by the family for having a child out of wedlock. She’s heard nothing since and longs to hear news of her son. Her aunt, a cold, proud woman, has not come to talk about the child, but to get Angelica’s signature on a document renouncing her inheritance. When asked, she tells Angelica that the child died two years before.
Russian soprano Maria Gavrilova fits the role. She has a big expressive Puccini voice, with which she portrays the initial steadiness which reveals nothing of Angelica’s inner thoughts to the other nuns, then excitement, love, hope and hope dashed, pain, desolation, determination, frenzied despair and finally sublime happiness, all with her voice, because she can only express large movements within the enveloping robes of a nun.
The role of the Principessa is short but crucial. Mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright, who as a soprano in times past sang a much acclaimed Angelica, has under 10 minutes to delineate this character. In this production, directed by Bernard Uzan, she is dressed all in black with a large silver crucifix on her breast, stiff and walking with a stick, but a tall and uncompromising figure. Her distaste for coming is only overcome by her need to get the document signed, but it is clear in the physical distance she maintains from her niece, her refusal to allow any closeness, her fierce dismissal of forgiveness. The only humanity she shows is in the long silence before she reluctantly tells of the child’s death and the warring elements she displays when Angelica collapses at the news. Pride, not compassion, wins. Plowright is superb as actress as well as singer. Her lowest notes are amazing for a singer who used to be soprano, and the quality is still strong after over 30 years on worldwide stages.
The nuns’ chorus remains a peaceful backdrop to all this, while the music is some of Puccini’s most exquisitely beautiful, the moods of the singers brought out in the music throughout. Wedow and the orchestra achieve this with ease and support to the singers.
In La Voix Humaine, director Uzan brings out the tension of a single character’s inner emotions and the restlessness of its outer delineation. In Suor Angelica, the story builds to a suicidal climax and a denouement as unexpected as it is satisfying in his visually expressive direction. The lighting throughout is notably effective, the sets a contrast to each other.
If you like being harrowed to beautiful music, don’t miss this double bill. It runs through May 18.
Pictured above: Nuccia Focile in La Voix Humaine. Photo by Elise Bakketun.