Review: La Voix Humaine at Leeds Playhouse

Saturday 10th October 2020 at Leeds Playhouse (Barber Studio).

So you’re on a bus, or a train, or a plane, and you’re hearing one side of a scandalous call – or a tragic call – or a break-up call. It’s one side of the story, but gradually the fragmented pieces begin to find one another and the story takes shape. That’s the dynamic at the centre of this intimate, melancholy work by Francis Poulenc – and of course, being a one act opera, this story reaches thrilling dramatic heights. It paints pictures of great happiness in the past and desperate woe in the present, sitting us directly before a broken heart as it is weighed and measured through song.

Perhaps all the more enticing is that as the audience we’ve managed to find ourselves eavesdropping from within our lead’s rooms, not wondering whether to stay on the journey for another stop to see how the call might end… It also has to be said that while Poulenc’s work may have been first performed in 1959, this production feels incredibly of the moment. It’s a story which certainly seems to capture something of the realities for many as relationships have buckled and broken as the world has locked down and conversations from a distance have become the norm.

Here, Gillene Butterfield’s lone performance as the bereft Elle makes impressive work of the one-sided conversation; clinging to a phone receiver for hope and answers, gradually the web she has created for herself and others is unwound. Butterfield is both a soaring vocalist and a talented storyteller here and she is joined by pianist Annette Saunders, who delivers the thrilling ebbs and flows of the score with great feeling. Sameena Hussain’s direction also captures the intimate space of the Barber Studio perfectly and that intimacy is fully utilised by Butterfield as she relays for us the details – it’s in that sense of intense isolation that the power of this piece lies. We may never see the abandoning lover, but the tragic consequences of their leaving is fully drawn for us.

La Voix Humaine is a powerful study of heartbreak but it’s also very beautiful, as is to be expected from an Opera North co-production. This is a story which showcases the infinite communicative power of music to tell any kind of tale, but a sad tale like this most especially – it’s well worth a visit.

La Voix Humaine is an Opera North and Leeds Playhouse co-production. It is part of Leeds Playhouse’s Connecting Voices series which marks the return of live theatre to the building after six months of closure. The series runs through to October 17th 2020 and you can find tickets for La Voix Humaine here.

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