“La Voix Humaine” – Spoleto Festival

Annie Loui in Perugia
22 July 2022

In the atmospheric Piazza del Duomo in Spoleto, a thousand Italians and visitors assembled to watch one of the Spoleto Festival’s centre pieces, Jean Cocteau and Poulenc’s 1959 experimental collaboration La Voix Humaine, a tragic lyric opera for solo voice.  Continuing the experiment, the dynamic Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan performed as both soloist and conductor, supported by a live manipulated video feed and the excellent Orchestra dell’Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia.



Barbara Hannigan as “Elle”. Photo credit: Andrea Veroni.


In the story, “Elle” is on the telephone with her unseen lover for the duration of the piece. She is arguing, reminiscing and pleading in calls that are interrupted by a mysterious wrong number.  In the course of the opera, Elle comes to understand that her lover has abandoned her, and will not return.  Cocteau sought to depict a woman alone in the intimacy of her bedroom, the phone as her means of communication and lifeline.

Barbara Hannigan stands on the conductor’s podium and using voice and exceptional physicality, embodies the torment of Elle. Solving the problem of how to conduct and perform, Hannigan faces the orchestra, punctuating her virtuosic singing with explosive character gestures that conduct the orchestra.

Elle is in control, “conducting” the world around her with a video feed showing us her face and gestures while she pours out her angst in song.  Sometimes flailing, sometimes playing with the camera and ducking out of view, and sometimes enlarged so that only mouth or eyes are visible to us, she uses the video like a mirror, ever examining her own emotions as she spirals out of control.

This is a bravura performance of total theatre, performed with complete conviction and fearless skill.  Standing on one leg off-balance, reaching in vulnerability towards her “lover”, Hannigan attains an emotional crescendo of confusion and the video duplicates her image with multiple arms and hands and faces.  Finally collapsed and abandoned, she subsides into lyrical arm gestures and a voice full of sadness.  The video blurs. Elle turns to the audience. There is nothing left.

Her voice and gestures are united, and the orchestra is in full response to her unconventional technique.  The Canadian singer/conductor won a 2018 Grammy as both singer and conductor of a classical solo vocal album, so this is familiar territory for her.  Hannigan is quoted in the programme saying: “I had always thought that Elle’s forays into fantasy, delusion and control made La Voix Humaine a highly possible sing-conduct performance.”  And so it was.



Photo credit: Andrea Veroni.


In addition to the incredibly broad contribution from Hannigan, staging and video are by Denis Goguen and Clemens Malinowski. To summarize, it’s a solid artistic experiment of the type that the Spoleto Festival is famous for. Top performers stretching out into unexpected territory in an atmospheric setting. We are left impacted by the brave vehicle of the operetta, and less impacted by the emotional journey of the story.

The integration of video, though skillfully constructed to accentuate the plot-line, creates distance from the live action and mutes the vicarious identification of audience with protagonist. Half-way through I found myself wishing I could just watch the engaging Barbara Hannigan facing the audience and performing the role in the old-fashioned way though I suspect that the festival founder, Maestro Carlo Menotti, would be proud of this experiment, where the performing artist is the focus.

On the following morning, with the twelfth-century Piazza del Duomo already heating up, Menotti’s former house was the setting for a chamber music concert featuring a rising Italian pianist.  Twenty audience members and a Steinway piano could fit into the small room where the windows were opened or closed during the performance depending on the timing of the cathedral bells.  Under its new artistic director, Monique Veaute, the festival continues its tradition of quality and international experimentation without losing a beat in the heart of Italy.