Home > Playwriting > Pagliacci / La Voix Humaine

Pagliacci / La Voix Humaine

November 17th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Went to the Opera Cleveland production of La Voix Humaine and Pagliacci last Thursday night. 

Pagliacci Collage

Pagliacci collage from Opera Cleveland

The first piece was very difficult to sit through.  I read about later and learned that it was an avant garde piece and is considered a wonderful analysis of one human being’s isolation, etc, and highly prized as it is one of the only solo opera pieces for women.  I told my wife that it was as near a conception of hell as I have ever had. If I wrote a play like La Voix Humaine, not only would it not be staged, but people who read it would most likely slap me in the head.  La Voix Humanie (music by Francis Poulenc to a libretto by Jean Cocteau) has a rather novel concept: a woman (Elle — Robin Follman) whose lover is dumping her has just suicided herself with a bunch of pills and is on the phone with him.  The phone is a party line and the call is continually interrupted and disconnected. You might be able to sustain this for :10 to :15 minutes. The opera piece was one hour.  One hour of a one-sided conversation. One hour of the most mundane and tiresome conversational points.  Cocteau should have been slapped in the head.  I don’t care that they label this thing as a Dadaist experiment or whatever; it was unpleasant.  And, to some extent, I think Cocteau might have known that and was forcing Madame Berthe Bovy, for whom it is said he wrote it, to endure the piece. Regardless, even if its intent was to exhaust everyone involved in the piece it surpassed that moving into a new realm of violence against an audience. There are several shifts in the piece, for instance, first she is very off-hand with her lover, sort of like: ‘well, while you were out of town I went out with my friends and partied, etc.’; this shifts later when she admits that she lied and was at home the whole time by the phone waiting for his phone call (which never came).  Later she admits how desperate she is for him and then hears jazz music in the background, thus realizing he’s out on the town and is most likely disinterested in her (as was I at that point).  I feel somewhat cruel and unfeeling, as I have been in her position before (long ago) with regard to love, but strangely did not have much sympathy for her; in fact, I found the whole thing quite annoying.  A larger problem, perhaps, with the experience for me was the fact that 1) the lines were sung (duh! Opera) and 2) they were in French, which of course meant I spent my time reading it.

After La Voix Humaine, Pagliacci was a godsend.  Hear Caruso sing Vesti La Giubba Thank God for multiple characters, a plot, and some action! I never felt so relieved.  The irony is not lost on me, given my recent predilection for plotless plays. I can see where the modern musical has its origin. Having looked at Brecht a bit I saw many interesting things going on. For instance, at the outset there is a dumbshow and tragedy (in black) confronts comedy (in white).  Also, the character of Tonio (Michael Chioldi) comes out and directly addresses the audience reminding them that the clowns are real people and feel just like the audience does. So, in this short prologue you have the premise of the piece outlined and are instructed that these are actors playing parts. The premise of the piece is that Canio (Gregory Carroll) is the head of a troupe of clowns who go from town to town entertaining in villages.  It is a commedia dell’arte troupe complete with Harlequin, etc. Canio’s wife, Nedda (Robin Follman), is cheating on him with a man (Silvio — Eric Dubin) in the village that they come to entertain. The payoff for this plot is fulfilled by using the play within the play: the subject matter of the play within the play is identical to the main problem of the play itself: i.e. the cuckolding of Pagliacci and the cuckolding of Canio (the character who plays Pagliacci–which means ‘clown’).  So, these two events mirror each other, but the most excellent part is when Pagliacci is confronting his wife Colombina about her cuckolding him and you suddenly realize that it’s not the clowns at play anymore, but Canio has broken his character and is really confronting Nedda.  This is compounded by the audience being present to watch the commedia dell’arte farce and their reaction to Canio’s performance–which, of course, is no performance. Silvio is equally confused as he doesn’t know, due to the subject matter of the play within the play, whether to intervene and stop Canio/Pagliacci from killing Nedda/Colombina.  Very like Hamlet, Canio gets the reaction that he wants. That is, as Canio begins to kill Nedda, Silvio is flushed out of hiding and forced to confront Canio.  But it is too late, as Canio has knifed Nedda and follows up by knifing Silvio. Canio then announces, ‘the play is finished’. The whole nature of the play within the play mirroring the ‘reality’ in the play’s world was highly engaging to me as an audience member, but then the method by which the two were made to work against one another was fantastic. It formed a dialog between the two whose irony was only apparent to the real audience in the theater, not the ‘fake’ audience on the stage. The contrasts though were forced to be drawn: the two scenarios, the clowns with the ‘real’ character counterparts, and of course, the two audiences sitting face to face: one unaware and ‘entertained’ the other fully aware and thrilled and horrified all at once. The operatic moments also work very much like Brechtian songs, making the audience aware that this is no “reality” and that you are seeing a performance. The dialog that is created between the notion of what is a performance and what is real is also created, as there are many characters whose action mirror those of the characters in the play-within-the-play. This coupled with the admonition by Tonio at the outset that clowns feel too forces a consideration about the nature of performance and what is real and what is ‘staged’.

Given the known troubles that Opera Cleveland is having, one thing that surprised me was the set and effects, the large number of people (chorus), etc.  I just wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to have productions that were stripped down completely and used some other methods for effects.  With this play there are probably 4-5 characters really needed, not the dozens that were present.  Obviously, the orchestra is necessary and I’m sure that is a significant expense.  It is just interesting to ponder the costs and differences between running a theater company and an opera company and the factors that enter into the various models.

One thing that disappointed me, of course, is that I’m very used to being in theaters like convergence-continuum where you are, happily, only feet from any actor at any given moment.  For $30 I was way the hell back from the stage and under a balcony to boot.  The proscenium was pronounced and the fourth wall was present–though occasionally broken, by Tonio’s direct address, for example.

I very much enjoyed the experience, being a fan of some musicals (I know, I know…) it is no surprise (i.e. Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Producers). The music was well-played (as far as I know) and conducted (Dean Williamson); the performances well directed (Bernard Uzan) and I thought the voices were very fine.  I will definitely make a point of going back again, if Opera Cleveland is around…

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

%d bloggers like this: