Thursday, September 28, 2017

A voyeuristic edge frames BK Opera's inescapably gripping La voix humaine

Bethany Eloise, La voix humaine
At first, it was difficult to know whether I had arrived at the right spot for BK Opera's final production of their three-opera season for 2017. But, after a tentative climb above a few flights of stairs at 193 Bourke Street in central Melbourne, I was greeted by artistic director, Kate Millett and relieved to be where I was supposed to. As part of Melbourne's Fringe Festival, the enigma of dabbling into theatrically unsophisticated and surprising new spaces was palpable. What was to come could very well leave its dramatic stain upon them.

It may even leave you feeling that you weren't meant to be there. In Francois Poulenc's haunting one-act opera, La voix humaine, Millett creates a setting for four disturbing and fluidly connected encounters with a nameless woman ("Elle" or "She" in French) who is suffering after the breakdown of a 5-year relationship with her "Mon Cheri" and who eventually takes her life after a series of real-time telephone conversations in 45 minutes of dramatic monologue. We are by no means guests in her cocooned little bed chamber, four of them - each with its own singer who depicts her mental deterioration - but attend, watch and listen in voyeuristic and helpless quietude. The result is inescapably gripping.

The human state is not immune from the pain of breaking up and each of the four singers - Bethany Eloise, April Foster, Adelaide Greenaway and Lara Vosicano (who replaced an indisposed Lisa Lally) - brought out a spectrum of touching and nuanced colours along the way. In particular, Bethany Eloise, who opens the work, immediately draws you in with her engaging style, beautifully articulated and attentively emotive recitative as well as richness of singing. The French-sung libretto is surtitled in English but their inconveniently high-placed position stretches the neck away from the scenario.

The risk of compartmenting such a specifically solo-focused work into 4 sections is that cohesiveness and focus could easily collapse. In this case, with no space for more than a small audience of 10 who stand, sit or kneel in a tight and up-close arrangement, each brief part highlighted the voyeuristic nature of the experiences. It also provides these 4 young singers an opportunity to share the rigorous demands of the role.

Adelaide Greenaway, La voix humaine
As an odalisque-like figure just an arm's reach away and as up close as it gets, "Elle's" private world of hot pink vibrancy, an obsession with fluffy stuffed animals and a mood of soft sensuality describe the first of the 3m x 4m rooms. Moving from one room to the next, the intensity of pink diminishes until the last room wears a dominant white palette, metaphorically suggesting that the emotional toll on "Elle" has gradually drained her of purpose. Pam Christie's skill on keyboard and James Penn's narrative-friendly musical direction provide simple and adequate backing from out in the corridor.

The final moments lose power when "Elle" twists the telephone cord dangerously yet almost playfully around her neck but the overall tragedy is starkly realised. You leave the last room and walk past each of the other three spying on each of these young women frozen in their little rooms of soft-lit pinks. It might even remind you of the plush window boxes in Amsterdam's red light district. Perhaps this "Elle" had wanted so much to be loved that, when its no longer there, the pain and humiliation is too great. Whichever way you think of it, this is a Fringe Festival show worth looking and standing for.

La voix humaine
BK Opera
Carlton Club
Level 4, 193 Bourke Street, Melbourne
Until 30th September.

Production Photos: courtesy of Kate Millett

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