Roman Fever/The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine) review by The Stage

Roman Fever/The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine) review by The Stage

“Engaging”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Nadine Benjamin in The Human Voice (La Voix Humain) at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London. Photo: Dominique Nok
Nadine Benjamin’s performance is the highlight of this double bill of one-act operas

In an evening of one-act operas presented by the Pegasus Opera Company at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music, a riveting performance by Nadine Benjamin in Poulenc’s The Human Voice outshines Hagemann’s two-hander, Roman Fever. As the slowly unravelling Elle in Poulenc’s single-character masterpiece, Benjamin demonstrates why she is such a fast-rising star.

La Voix Humaine, presented here in an excellent English translation by Richard Stokes, is based on a play by Jean Cocteau. Poulenc worked closely with Denise Duval, the first Elle, as he created the opera, which premiered at the Opéra-Comique, Paris in 1959. As directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, Benjamin holds nothing back expressively. From the very first moment we encounter her as Elle, dressed in her nightdress and robe, we are riveted. We feel every curve of Elle’s rollercoaster ride of emotions while she talks on the telephone with her unseen ex-lover. Her moods range from bubbly banter to gasping anguish, and the red telephone, with its long cord like a leash, becomes more like a character in its own right than a prop. The orchestra, under the direction of Rebecca Tong, plays Poulenc’s rich score with conviction, providing solid support to Benjamin, whose warm soprano has also been heard recently as Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale at the English National Opera and in the title role of Luisa Miller at Glyndebourne.

Like Elle in The Human Voice, the two central characters in Hagemann’s Roman Fever find themselves having to confront painful truths about their lovers. The source material for this opera is a story by Edith Wharton about two wealthy widows who visit Rome with their young adult daughters. Here, the setting is shifted closer to 1989, when the opera received its premiere. As Alida and Grace, Alison Buchanan and Bernadine Pritchett are elegantly attired in shimmering outfits, exuding entitlement, whether interacting with their daughters (Yolanda Grant-Thompson and Marie Cayeux) or archly recalling the days of their own youth on a visit to Rome. Their differing memories of that Roman holiday shake loose some secrets that undermine the very basis of their long friendship.

The discontented lives of privileged upper-class Americans have been well-explored on the musical stage, and this piece breaks no new ground, despite two engaging performances here by Buchanan and Pritchett. Pegasus Opera Company’s visionary support of artists of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage has become a vital part of the operatic ecosystem in Britain, and a production like The Human Voice shows how much more this company can offer.