Music for a break-up: Poulenc’s “La voix humaine”

Have you ever been dumped by a boyfriend (or girlfriend) and feel that you just can’t go on? That you would do anything to talk to your beloved again and that you can talk him or her into getting back together again. Francis Poulenc’s one person opera La voix humaine (The Human Voice) is based on that premise. In 1930s Paris an unnamed woman waits in her bedroom for the man who has broken up with her to call her. The libretto is by Jean Cocteau, and we hear only the woman’s side of the conversation with her former lover. She flatters, cajoles, cries, begs him not to leave. She even describes her poor dog, who doesn’t understand why the man isn’t there. He may or may not be calling from a restaurant where he is with a new girlfriend.

This 1990 film (released on DVD in 2009) of the 50-minute opera stars the American soprano Julia Migenes. It is hard to imagine a better performance. The realistic set representing the woman’s apartment is lavish. The camera work focuses on the woman’s increasingly unhinged emotions. At the end, it is revealed that the lover is leaving the next day for Marseilles, and the woman will be alone. She clutches a handful of sleeping pills as the scene fades.

Unless you are fluent in French, be sure to use the English subtitles. Unlike a lot of operas, the words in La voix humaine are almost more important than the music.

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