THE HUMAN VOICE (La voix humaine)

NZ Academy of Fine Arts, 1 Queens Wharf, Wellington

27/02/2020 - 29/02/2020

{Suite} Gallery, 241 Cuba Street, Te Aro, Wellington

31/01/2020 - 02/02/2020

Production Details

By Francis Poulenc and Jean Cocteau

Experience the powerful intimacy of The Human Voice 

A splintering relationship becomes high art in Francis Poulenc and Jean Cocteau’s lushly operatic one-act monodrama, The Human Voice (La voix humaine).

Tabitha Arthur directs soprano Barbara Paterson and pianist Gabriela Glapska in this deeply moving, complex portrait of a woman in crisis. Presented in English and set amidst the stunning imagery of top contemporary artists at {Suite} Gallery and at the Academy Galleries/Wallace Arts Trust’s 28th Annual Wallace Art Awards, The Human Voice examines critical questions of communication, authenticity and artifice in a technological age, featuring tour de force performances from some of NZ’s most dramatically and musically incisive artists.

Please note that The Human Voice refers to suicide. Please contact if you need further information on this content before booking.

{Suite} Gallery, 241 Cuba Street, Te Aro, Wellington
31 January – 2 February 2020
Fri & Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm

NZ Academy of Fine Arts, 1 Queens Wharf, Wellington
27 – 29 February 2020

Barbara Paterson, Soprano
Gabriela Glapska, Piano
Tabitha Arthur, Director
Meredith Dooley, Costumes
Isadora Lao, Lighting 

Theatre , Opera , Solo ,

Strong, uncompromising yet unquestionably cool

Review by Michael Gilchrist 01st Feb 2020

“Voices fall in love with other voices,” wrote Roland Barthes. In this one act ‘monodrama’ we take part in an absorbing love triangle. We witness the agonising loss of a woman’s last link with her lover: his voice on the telephone. That voice creates the space in which she is safe, the surface from which her own voice comes back to her, the shared breath which she can truly breathe.

At the same time as his voice is slowly but steadily withdrawn from her over the course of the piece, we the audience are ever more seduced by her voice. We are drawn into the river of its emotions; its increasingly lyrical, luminous flow. But however powerfully we inhabit her voice and learn to love its owner, that comfort is inaccessible to her. Ultimately she experiences only an unbearable emptiness at the other end of the line.

The Human Voice / La Voix Humaine has enjoyed many performances and recordings since its debut in 1958, but this is the first time I have had the chance to see it here in Wellington. Originally scored for a full, though scaled-down orchestra, it has also frequently been performed, as it is here, with piano. Poulenc says that “the enire work must bathe in the largest orchestral sensuality” – a further intriguing dimension in its structure. We hear a little of the colouring of that accompaniment through the piano chords – always satisfyingly complex – but in this version we are also presented with the stark outline of the woman’s – of Elle’s – emotional descent. That makes it a challenging piece for the performers and director.

In some ways is a challenge for the audience too, mainly because of the interuptions that are built into the emotional narrative as technical failures and ‘crossed wires’ in the Parisian phone system. Of course we may see this aspect as integral to the story, no less now with our cellphones as then with those large, vaguely anatomical old telephones. We fail to attend other messages, other media are always intervening – and this compounds our emotional disconnections. But it may also be seen as a somewhat unnecessary level of metaphor in the story.

The heart of that story lies in the hurtful, incapacitating speed with which Elle’s connection to her lover has ended. He arranges to collect his things from her apartment and moves on to a dream holiday with his new lover. Interpretatively, the choice lies in integrating the interuptions of the hang-ups and ring tones more into the rhythm and melody of the music or making them take their full, nerve-jangling toll. Both choices are valid and this production tends more to the latter course, consistent with its more contemporary musical sensibility. The first option is more reminscent of, say, the Willow song from Otello – the fearful interuptions, the return to the fretful, grieving two-note undercurrent.

That said, there is no doubt that this production rises to the challenges of a contemporary interpretation in comprehensive fashion. First and foremost , soprano Barabara Paterson diplays complete control and passionate commitent throughout all the moods of this very rich piece of writing, from spine-chilling wailing through powerful dramatic expression to gorgeous colouring in the denouement. Her acting is exemplary and there is a dignity  and depth of understanding – a feminist understanding, as she notes – in her portrayal of Elle’s position. It is good to see a performer of this standard get a chance to display the full range of her talents in a role like this. Paterson never misses a heartbeat in response.

The direction, by Tabitha Arthur, is perfectly matched, using a cunning, minimalist set that allows for considerable variations in the height, angle and attitude of the singer. Isadora Lao’s lighting plot successfully adds a further dimension, affecting the white spaces of Suite Gallery particularly. Gabriela Glapska’s piano accompaniment is deeply attuned to the singing: rhythmically precise and produces wondeful tone from a fine instrument. Mention must also be made of Megan Archer’s very accomplished paintings that form an apt backdrop, with interpenetrating human and technological forms.

Altogether this is a strong, uncompromising yet unquestionably cool production, performed at the highest standards. It opens up another dimension of Poulenc’s genius in writing for the voice, in a coherent, sophisticated, contemporary interpretation. At just one act of about 40 minutes it makes for a very memorable but perfectly digestible evening’s entertainment – and one that anyone interested in opera won’t want to miss. It runs for a further two nights at Suite Gallery, but also returns for the Arts Festival. 


Graham Atkinson February 29th, 2020

It's festival time here in Wellington (Arts & Fringe) and one of the wonderful parts of these is the unexpected discovery of a new work or talent.

Tonight was one of those occasions in, of all places, the New Zealand Academy Gallery. Poulenc's "La voix humaine", libretto by Jean Cocteau in an English translation was breathtaking in its emotions. A work I didn't know presented amongst the wonderful entries in the Sir James Wallace Art Awards had me spellbound almost from the first note. It's a remarkable work and I'm glad I opted to support Barbara Paterson and her team - even if my original planned evening was sabotaged by Wellington's traffic.

The beauty is in the simple presentation of a tragic but all to common story. If you've wondered whether you should catch this production the answer is a resounding YES - one more performance Saturday at 6pm and you'll still have time to catch that other Festival show or concert at 8 or even 7.30pm.

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