OPERA THEATRE Company comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Monday November 23 at 8pm, with an exciting double bill of short works, Poulenc’s The Human Voice and Wolf Ferrari’s Susanna’s Secret.
Francis Poulenc’s The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine ) was first staged in Paris in 1959 and was based on a play by his good friend Jean Cocteau. It explores the themes of love and loss; in it, a young woman is driven to the point of desperation as she tries to connect with her ex-lover over the telephone. Poulenc creates an atmospheric and theatrical soundscape, using unaccompanied vocal singing interspersed with evocative musical outbursts to convey the woman’s heartbreak and loss. It adds up to a deep and emotional depiction of the aftermath of a relationship.
The stylish and sophisticated Susanna’s Secret (Il Segreto di Susanna ) is a comedy opera built on marital misunderstanding, full of fun and frothiness. A man suspects his wife is having an affair when he smells cigarette smoke from her clothes, and he strives to discover her secret with hilarious consequences in a work that is wryly observant about the secrets that couples keep from each other.
Poulenc’s many compositions encompassed chamber music, solo piano works, ballets, and orchestral music, but it was not until later in his career he turned to opera, with The Human Voice being one of his only three works in that field. In contrast, Venetian composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948 ) was internationally feted for his numerous comic operas – many of which were adaptations of the wild and witty plays of the 18th century playwright Goldoni. Before the outbreak of World War I, Wolf-Ferrari’s operas were among the most performed in the world.
Both pieces in Opera Theatre Company’s production are directed by Tom Creed and, ahead of their Galway performance, he took some to chat with me about them, beginning with his observations on The Human Voice.
“The opera gives us one woman onstage having a phone call with a man who is offstage," he says. "When Poulenc wrote the opera in middle of 20th century he was putting a contemporary relationship onstage mediated through contemporary technology. At that time someone having a phone conversation in an opera was very new but this idea of a woman at the end of a relationship struggling to connect with her ex-lover over a failing telephone signal is something that we can also relate to in our contemporary lives, with phone batteries running out.”
Opera Theatre Company have updated the setting of Poulenc’s opera. “We have taken the piece and imagined it in a present day context,” Creed reveals. “I am interested in presenting people’s lives back to them when they come to the theatre or opera. I feel the work should be very current rather than merely a picture of the past. We want to see our relationships on stage.”
Creed and the company have also modernised the setting of Susanna’s Secret which dates from 1909. “It’s an opera in which a young woman hides a secret from her husband which is that she is smoking and she does not want him to know,” Creed explains. “He suspects she is having an affair and he flies into a jealous rage. We have moved it to a contemporary context and put a contemporary relationship onstage which audience members will recognise. There are things which don’t change regarding the relationships between men and women as well as things that do and we look at those in the production. Funnily, as I wrote in the theatre programme, for some people smoking would be frowned upon today as much as having an affair. The opera is a playful, theatrical treatment of its subject which I have enjoyed working on.”
An added attraction of this two-hander programme is that it gives audiences a chance to see works that are not often performed here. “With short operas it can be difficult to give them a context and it is rare to get short works done,” Creed notes. “Both these pieces are really significant works of 20th century opera. They also make a good double bill because we are putting these together these two pieces about men and women and relationships and the secrets and lies that we hold from each other. In Susanna’s Secret you can see the comedy of that situation while The Human Voice portrays a relationship when it really goes wrong, it’s broken.”
Both works have been attracting rave reviews from the critics with The Irish Times declaring that OTC’s production of The Human Voice ‘was simple, to the point and found real beauty in this 60-minute modernist gem’ while The Irish Examiner adjudged that Susanna’s Secret was ‘executed with verve and élan.’
The Human Voice is presented in a new translation by Richard Stokes and stars gifted young soprano Kim Sheehan, accompanied by Andrew Synott on piano. Rachel Croash (soprano ) and Rory Musgrave (baritone ) star in Susanna’s Secret, with Andrew Synnott again featuring on piano, joined by Lynda O’Connor on violin and Ailbhe McDonagh on cello. The work is sung in English, in a new translation by Tom Swift.
Creed offers his concluding thoughts on the show: “It’s a great production for people who are interested in opera because they are seeing works which don’t get done that often and with fantastic young singers. It is also an opportunity for those who have not previously been to the opera and might be scared of trying something three hours long; this is just two 45 minute pieces, it is very theatrical, and the singers are very strong actors. I hope there is something there for newcomers to opera as well as opera aficionados.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie