Voix Humaine & Suor Angelica
Expressive Voices At Heart of Seattle Opera Double Bill
Opera can be intimate and elemental, as the company demonstrates in its present double bill. ... As an examination of the human heart, it’s hard to beat. … What makes this pair of one-act operas work is the tremendous expressive quality of the principal and supporting singers. First to appear is Nuccia Focile, as the nameless protagonist of the one-woman La Voix Humaine. Familiar to Seattle Opera audiences…Focile is both appealing and harrowing as the distraught Elle…(while) the orchestral score scurries dramatically upward to indicate her dismay. … Her clear, expressive voice packs an emotional punch, and her unfussy, natural acting makes this a tour-de-force performance. … Conductor Gary Thor Wedow (leads) the responsive orchestra, not only in the fast-moving Poulenc score but also in the lush sonorities of Puccini’s Suor Angelica. … Maria Gavrilova is making her Seattle debut in title role of Angelica, and does a great job with her showstopper aria (“Senza mamma”); her voice could be described as “Puccini heroine with a side of Valkyrie.” … Not surprisingly, the great Rosalind Plowright is an utterly riveting Princess, the cruelly unforgiving aunt who wreaks havoc when she visits the erring Angelica in the convent after ignoring her for seven years. … Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus contributes to a radiant finale, and the supporting cast of Suor Angelica is a fine ensemble team.
-Melinda Bargreen, The Seattle Times
Two Operatic Women Up Against It
In the crucial, and chilling, central scene of Puccini’s Suor Angelica, the Seattle Opera stage was dominated by two Sister Angelicas. Fresh from triumphs at the Met and elsewhere, the Russian soprano Maria Gavrilova was making her Seattle debut in the title role. Throughout the evening, Gavrilova revealed a phenomenal combination of vocal intensity and dramatic force, vividly evoking both Angelica’s vulnerability and her human decency. Her antagonist was Rosalind Plowright, who back in her soprano days was herself a distinguished Angelica, but, now a mezzo-soprano, appeared as “La Zia Principessa”—“the aunt-princess.” … Without the slightest diminution of regal dignity, Plowright’s signal achievement, along with her superb singing, (was) to bring a nuanced view (of the character) compellingly to life. It would be hard to imagine two artists capable of rivaling this formidable pair in realizing the excruciating drama of the scene. … The evening’s other opera, Poulenc’s magisterial setting of Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, recounts…the familiar heartache of one particular woman abandoned by one particular man. And this performance too was anchored by a wonderfully sensitive vocal and dramatic portrayal of the protagonist, “Elle,” by company stalwart Nuccia Focile.
Gary Thor Wedow led a convincingly paced and sumptuously played account of the two composers’ widely differing scores. Bernard Uzan’s direction of La Voix humaine was admirably supple and natural. In Suor Angelica, without weakening the dramatic impact of the story, he underplayed the more picturesque effects called for by the stage directions: at the concluding “miracle,” we were shown just a simple—and simply touching—(stage picture.) Altogether, the double bill received a presentation without weak links, and made the best possible case for both works.
-Bernard Jacobson, Seen and Heard International
Women Abandoned at Seattle Opera
Women who have been abandoned are a motif running through both short works on Seattle Opera’s current double bill, one by a lover, the other by her family. … Francis Poulenc’s 1959 La Voix Humaine takes an intense 40 minutes. … The opera rings true. … Soprano Nuccia Focile embodies the part, her voice changing from brittle calm and sensible to rising hysteria and barely controlled desperation. … The orchestra makes obvious the meaning of the words we don’t hear, those of the lover who is leaving. … Conductor Gary Thor Wedow does a fine job of shaping the flow and keeping the expressive and tonal music from overwhelming the singer, and both he and Focile have masterly control of the pregnant pauses which dot the score. … Puccini’s Suor Angelica begins with serene music in the garden of a convent. … Russian soprano Maria Gavrilova fits the title role. She has a big expressive Puccini voice, with which she portrays the initial steadiness, then excitement, love, hope and hope dashed, pain, desolation, determination, frenzied despair and finally sublime happiness, all with her voice! … The role of the Principessa is short but crucial. Mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright is superb as actress as well as singer; her quality is still strong after over 30 years on worldwide stages. … The music is some of Puccini’s most exquisitely beautiful. …The story builds to a denouement as unexpected as it is satisfying. … Don’t miss this double bill.
- Philippa Kiraly, CityArts
Two Women on the Verge in “Suor Angelica” & “Voix Humaine”
(With) the last performances of the 2012-13 season ; the Opera is going out on top. Composed by Francis Poulenc in 1959, with a libretto by Jean Cocteau, La Voix Humaine is a short, powerful take on the end of a love affair. Only one performer takes the stage: the amazing Nuccia Focile carries the show. Elle is part courage, part anger, and partly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Focile navigates the story with uncommon acting chops and a luscious, supple voice that conveys both the depth of Elle’s despair and the character’s strong will. The story feels modern, and the music, under the sympathetic baton of conductor Gary Thor Wedow, is romantic, lustful, and complex. … Focile, who has done magnificent work at Seattle Opera…moves around the single bedroom set with grace and excellence. She is a revelation as both a singer and actor here. … With someone as powerful as Focile, even modest opera is a wonder to behold. … The second half of the night’s double treat was a seldom-seen Puccini opera, Suor Angelica. Set in an abbey in 1600s Italy, this one-act opera [features] a plot worthy of O’Neill or O. Henry. Maria Gavrilova sings the role of Sister Angelica with power and sadness; steering the character out of the pits of despair and to present her as a strong-willed, but naïve woman. Rosalind Plowright plays the pious aunt with bone-hard conviction and holier-than-thou righteousness. With acting skills to match her instrument, Plowright comes up with the best performance I’ve seen at Seattle Opera this year. … Also coming through with an amazing performance is the Seattle Opera chorus under the direction of chorusmaster Beth Kirchhoff. In Suor Angelica, she guides the women’s chorus through a triumphant reading of Puccini’s music, which has overtones of sacred vespers. It’s powerfully nostalgic. … General Director Speight Jenkins was canny to put these two operas together. Both are stories of discarded women who are robbed of everything they have, even their illusions. … I don’t see how two short operas could be much better. … Despite the evening’s sad overtones, you walk out thinking about miracles — a happy presentation for all concerned.
- Roger Van Oosten, The SunBreak
Poulenc and Puccini: Perfect Together
Seattle Opera’s current double bill of one-act operas represents the company’s most adventurous undertaking of the season as far as programming goes. … First, there is the pairing itself: French composer Francis Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) launches the evening with an artful mix of neurotic emoting and oblique implication. What follows is Suor Angelica, an unabashed tear-jerker from late in Puccini’s career featuring a radiant score complete with an over-the-top apotheosis as the finale…. Both feature female leads who need more than a beautiful voice: Puccini and especially Poulenc require their heroines to compress an intense, full-length evening’s worth of acting into less than an hour each. … (As Poulenc’s heroine,) Focile impresses with her ability to turn on a dime with her voice, singing the little doses of worry, then relief, then lyricism followed by panic. … The final stage image is a haunting reminder of the unchanging human condition. … To atone for having a child out of wedlock, Puccini’s Suor Angelica has been forced by her powerful aristocratic family to enter the convent in which the story is set. When her aunt, the Principessa, arrives after a silence of years to have Angelica sign away her claim to the family money, she also brings (devasting) news. … We won't give away the ending here. Suffice it to say that Puccini manages to be more sentimental than Madama Butterfly, while at the same time creating one of the most genuinely heartbreaking moments in opera. So much so that you have to be more or less emotionless if the finale doesn’t bring you to tears. … Making her company debut as Suor Angelica, Russian soprano Maria Gavrilova (delivers) a marvelous performance that draws out every facet of her character. Her voice is a powerful instrument capable of swelling torrents of emotion and impressive across its range. … Stage director Bernard Uzan has done some of the best work I’ve seen from him here. He captures both the surprise of the finale and its stirring emotional impact. … As the dreaded, ice-hearted Principessa, mezzo Rosalind Plowright is a stunning figure. … Pier Paolo Bisleri’s set for La Voix Humaine is fittingly minimalist, with looming dimensions to exaggerate Elle’s isolation. He presents Puccini’s Siennese convent as a comforting garden space dominated by a statue of Mary. … Conductor Gary Thor Wedow brings a keen sympathy to Poulenc’s nuanced musical dramaturgy. It may have been a spillover effect, but his Puccini, too, has a slightly French touch in the refined shaping of phrases — though there’s no lack of gripping passion.
-Thomas May, Crosscut
All the Single Ladies
You can’t accuse Seattle Opera of always playing it safe. Their most recent show was La bohème, a crowd-pleasing, three-act standard with friendly melodies and a cast of good-humored gents. This month, the production is decidedly—and refreshingly—different: a doubleheader that begins with one woman singing for 40 minutes straight and ends in a convent. … The first half of the two one-act operas, La Voix Humaine, has “contemporary” written all over its central prop: a telephone. Nuccia Focile delivers a distraught solo performance as Elle, a woman in the throes of a breakup. As if saying good-bye on the phone isn’t already awkward, Elle is stuck on a party line plagued by dropped connections and eavesdroppers. Debuting in Paris in 1959, Francis Poulenc’s violent score sounds like a Hitchcock movie, and Jean Cocteau’s libretto moves with the jumpy pace of his play (upon which it was based).
The result is a show both stark and complex to my MTV-generation ears—but Focile’s velveteen voice and emotional spectrum jab you in the heart. Seattle Opera deserves props for this show, which expands the range of many opera newcomers and gives opera lovers a show that isn’t often performed.
-Dominic Holden, The Stranger
Seattle Opera’s Double Bill
How can a singer bring tragic grandeur to something as mundane as a phone call without turning it into camp? Nuccia Focile, unwaveringly focused and committed, does just that. Poulenc’s shrewd deployment of forces intensifies her situation. His orchestra doesn’t consistently accompany the voice, work in concert with it, but usually simply underscores it cinematically. (It often remains silent while “Elle” sings, but fills the gaps between her utterances.) Occasionally it does even less, just providing decor: sensuous chords like upholstered cushions for the voice to lounge upon. Though there’s nothing surreal about Uzan’s staging, the sonic isolation that Poulenc engineered and Focile realizes chillingly made it seem like we were not only seeing but hearing a hallucinatory breakdown. … (In Suor Angelica), Maria Gavrilova brings a huge voice—a Turandot/BrÃ¼nnhilde voice—to the title role. It reveals the heart throbbing under her habit, as if Gavrilova is not merely aiming her sound into the hall, but allowing it to escape on the wing the constrictions of monastic life. The bearer of the bad news, Angelica’s malevolent aunt is sung by veteran Rosalind Plowright, who specializes in villainesses and plays her like a black-clad ice sculpture. Director Bernard Uzan’s uncluttered, by-the-book staging shows he trusts the piece, which is the only way it can work.
-Gavin Borchert, Seattle Weekly