Family Affair: La voix humaine from the Fundação Gulbenkian

Loewe – Overture to My Fair Lady
Satie – Je te veux
Dumont – Mon Dieu
Glanzberg – Padam, padam
Poulenc – La voix humaine
Poulenc – Salve Regina
Raksin – Smile

Elle – Marina Viotti

Coro Gulbenkian, Orquestra Gulbenkian / Lorenzo Viotti.
Stage director – Vincent Huguet.  Video directors – Ana Cordeiro & Maria Matos.

Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal.  Friday, December 4th, 2020.  Streamed via the Fundação Gulbenkian’s YouTube channel.

This was something of a family affair at the Fundação Gulbenkian, with the orchestra’s music director, Lorenzo Viotti, joined by his sister, noted mezzo-soprano, Marina.  The program was entitled La voix humaine and we did indeed get Poulenc’s melodrama.  To make an evening of it, the Poulenc was made into the centrepiece of a woman’s journey from chanteuse, to dejected lover, to resolution, in quite an ingenious way.  Costumed in a striking red dress (couture by Julien Fournié) accessorized with a blonde wig, Viotti sœur sang three classic French standards, before launching into the Poulenc.  Together with director Vincent Huguet, the Viottis gave us a fully thought-out concept, taking us on a journey from the highlight of an evening at a Pigalle cabaret, to a woman’s desperation in her loge, to a final resolution that felt unbearably moving.

Photo: © Gulbenkian Música – Márcia Lessa

The virtual curtain rose to a spirited rendition of the My Fair Lady overture, Viotti frère drawing out playing of Hollywood sweep from the Gulbenkian strings.  Viotti sœur opened with Satie’s Je te veux, singing with lyrical ease, soaring to a bright soprano.  In Dumont’s Mon Dieu, she incarnated a torch singer, pouring out both desperation and heartfelt feeling.  This was followed by a rendition of another Piaf classic, Padam, padam, sung with captivating abandon, the text spat out fiercely, the unbearable tension of the waltz pulling us inexorably along for the ride.  The coda of Padam, padam led straight into the harsh opening measures of La voix humaine, giving us both a musical shock and leading us into the darker place of the opera itself.

Photo: © Gulbenkian Música – Márcia Lessa

In this concert hall setting, Huguet set the action at the front of the stage, with the cabaret setting of a single microphone, morphing into the singer’s dressing room, consisting of two mirrors, a chaise longue, a phone, and a few other accessories.  Despite the simplicity of the setting, the evening had significant impact due to the vividness of Viotti sœur’s acting and her remarkable use of text.  Whether desperately folding herself over in mental pain singing into the phone, or lying on the chaise longue reflecting on physical closeness with her lover, Viotti sœur took us deep into the heart of Elle’s situation.  She achieved this through employing a rainbow of vocal colour, and also precisely through that outstanding clarity of diction.  Whether in the way she drained the colour from the tone in ‘bonsoir Joseph’, giving us a sense that she knew that this would be the last time she’d speak to her lover’s servant, or the numbness with which she recounted her overdose.  Viotti was also alive to the lyricism of the role, pouring out streams of silvery tone, yet also negotiated the quickfire parlando with impeccable accuracy of pitching.  Similarly, Viotti had clearly mastered the vocal range of the part, rising to an impressive high C and negotiating the passaggio with ease, the registers even throughout.

Photo: © Gulbenkian Música – Márcia Lessa

Her interpretation was as a piece with her brother’s, who equally conjured up a staggering range of orchestral colour from the band.  The jazzy, brassiness of the music down the phone, or the way that every sforzando represented a breaking of Elle’s heart.  The quality of the Gulbenkian’s playing was superb, strings playing with lyrical beauty, winds both piquant and plangent, with brass broth menacing and adding bluesy half-lights to the texture.  What struck me particularly about Viotti’s conducting was how it felt so closely connected to the vocal text, the orchestral textures both reacting to and an integral part of the drama.  As Viotti sœur repeated her desperate ‘je t’aime’s, the orchestral soundworld that was once so colourful fading into nothingness, there was perhaps nothing else that could fill the emptiness of the void.

Photo: © Gulbenkian Música – Márcia Lessa

Or perhaps there was, because in the lobby the Coro Gulbenkian sang Poulenc’s setting of the Salve regina.  In the hall, with the doors to the lobby open allowing the sound to flow in, the effect must have been magical – the sound of gentle consolation emerging from and into nothingness.  Conducted by Jorge Matta, the chorus sang with superb discipline and tuning, the blend was excellent, yet with the sopranos adding the fizz of a natural vibrato to the crystalline textures, almost like a fine vinho verde.  With Elle spotlit alone on stage in the darkness, the Salve regina brought us back to some resolution in the most sombre of places.

Photo: © Gulbenkian Música – Márcia Lessa

There was another unexpected surprise because following the Salve regina, Viotti sœur gave us an a cappella rendition of that old-time classic Smile, accompanied by the Orquestra Gulbenkian, this time singing rather than playing, in impeccably-tuned harmony.  Viotti gave it a vulnerability combined with determination that felt so real and so necessary in these incredibly hard times.  For those lucky to be in the hall, it must have sent them out into the night with precisely that sense of the world being a better place, that only a good night of opera can provide.

Photo: © Gulbenkian Música – Márcia Lessa

This was a very special evening.  It was one that lived through the text, that took us on a journey from joy, to sadness, to consolation.  It lived and helped us to feel, just at a time when we need it most.  In a world starved of live music, what the Gulbenkian and the Viottis, together with Huguet, achieved is something remarkable.  I have only one regret, and that is that I was unable to be there.  Fortunately, we have this streaming record to watch and I have no doubt I will return to it often.

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