Double Bill: Roman Fever and The Human Voice at Susie Sainsbury Theatre Review by A Young(ish) Perspective

Double Bill: Roman Fever and The Human Voice at Susie Sainsbury Theatre Review by A Young(ish) Perspective

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pegasus Opera Company masters two underrepresented modern operas which was a privilege to enjoy.

It is such a privilege to enjoy a double bill by Pegasus Opera Company with double surprises: two pieces of underrepresented operas by modern composers telling stories of normal people instead of kings, queens, and nobles, performed by musicians from underrepresented racial backgrounds.

Roman Fever is a short story by Pulitzer winner Edith Wharton delving into the friendship, jealousy and secrets between two American women, Alida and Grace, during their visit to Rome, and Philip Hagemann premiered its one-act operatic version in 1989. La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) is a one-act opera written by Francis Poulenc, based on Jean Cocteau’s play that explores the psyche of a self-blaming, jilted lover talking to her ex over the phone confessing her continuing affection.

Both operas have profoundly examined the psyches and emotions of middle-upper class women in the 20th century, through their relationships with men as well as female “rivals”. These underlying tensions and emotions might be underwater in their familiar domestic settings, but could erupt into storms when they are abroad – Americans in Europe for Roman Fever, and French in America for The Human Voice.

In the 20th century, particularly before the 80s, Freud and psychoanalysis was a big thing, and all of a sudden everyone’s interested in women’s inner lives. This shift has not only affected literary writings, but also the way of writing classical music. Both operas are not as melodic as traditional operas, with no typical recitatives and arias; instead, they employ a dialogue-driven structure that requires more precise and accurate portrayals of the characters to reflect deeper psychological explorations.

In Roman Fever, Alison Buchanan successfully portrays a thoughtful Alida who seems constantly knitting. On the surface, she is despised by Bernadine Pritchett’s proud and haughty Grace who thinks she wins their rivalry – both loves the same man but it is Grace marries him eventually. The music captures nuance thoughts and emotions of the two women when the narrative unveils until a startling revelation: Alida had an affair with Grace’s husband 25 years ago and her daughter Barbara is the proof.

In The Human Voice, the melody takes an even more non-traditional approach. Nadine Benjamin masterfully conveys the complexities of the woman’s mental, presenting rich layers of regret, self-blame, love, longing and resentment. All three sopranos deliver superb performances, showcasing exceptional vocal skills. They adeptly express tender emotions by using head voice, while also demonstrate strong, well-controlled expressions in their high-pitch singings.

The set by Peiyao Wang is simple but effective: two white walls (one is a projection screen), a phone mounting on the wall, and a round moon hanging above. During the climatic scenes of each opera, the moon will turn its pure, luminous white to a deep, unsettling red that symbolises those women’s chaotic internality and inner frustration. The orchestra conducted by Rebecca Tong deserves high praise for its role in the night’s performance, brilliantly rendering the psychological depth of the music.