Innervisions 

Nashville Opera plumbs intensely interior works by Poulenc and Davies

Nashville Opera plumbs intensely interior works by Poulenc and Davies

The Lighthouse/La Voix Humaine

Presented by Nashville Opera

Nov. 19-20 and 23 at TPAC's Polk Theater

Even more than symphonic music, opera is trapped in the past. Nobody writes them like they used to, or at least with the power to sweep people up in an immediate and visceral way. You can blame it on atonality, but even since the return of tonality in classical music, new works haven't emerged with the impact of Puccini or even the thornier appeal of Richard Strauss.

In part, it's just hard to write a great opera because there's so much going on (singing, drama, orchestration, sets), and writing strong melodies is truly a gift—one that not every composer possesses. But lack of familiarity with new works also contributes, so it's good to see the Nashville Opera jump into the contemporary realm with its upcoming bill of two 20th century chamber operas: La Voix Humaine, by Francis Poulenc, and The Lighthouse, by Peter Maxwell Davies.

Both are intensely interior works, dealing with people in psychological extremes. Poulenc's operas inhabit a distinctly female perspective, Davies' a male one (although his piece has a more complicated gender subtext). Short as they are, both will tax the dramatic resources of the singers, and of the director. These works have no ballroom scenes, no ceremony or pageantry to carry the action forward. Musically, they represent different faces of modernism, in both cases responses that provide a measure of traditional sonorities in the balance.

During the first part of the 20th century, classical composers reacted against the excesses and banality of late Romanticism. Germans and Austrians went in one direction, intensifying the gestures and logic of romanticism. The French pursued a tack of radical simplicity, led by Erik Satie, who wrote almost childlike pieces like "Three Gymnopedies" and "Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear." This aesthetic encompassed a delicate classicism and a Baudelairian sense of the dandy. Poulenc was part of a group of younger composers known as Les Six who followed Satie.

Poulenc composed La Voix Humaine in 1959, late in his career, working with a text by Jean Cocteau. The libretto deals with technology and human connections in a world that is every bit as disembodied as the present one. The only character we see and hear in the 40-minute work is a woman; she is talking on the phone with her lover, who has left her to marry another woman the next day. By watching and listening to the bereft woman's side of the conversation, we follow her as she alternates between denial and recognition and ultimately descends into despair. The opera depicts her isolation, alone in her room, connected by the filament of telephone wires to her departed lover's voice. His voice is the only human thing she has, keeping her alive and killing her. At one point, when she acts out the suicidal gesture of wrapping the phone cord around her neck, she tells him, "I have your voice around my neck."

The play includes several characters we don't hear or see. There is the lover, the other side of the long conversation—this isn't a monologue, after all. There is also a succession of telephone operators and interlopers on the line. People are cut off, multiple people talk on the same line. To some extent, the play memorializes and mocks the instability of the mid-century French phone system. Some readers may be old enough to remember when the reliability of phones was an issue for people traveling in Europe. One woman stays on the line and listens to the conversation. Late into the play, the singer tells her to hang up, but we don't have any assurance that she does. The conversation keeps going. Of course, we are that woman, spying. Reality TV hardly has a monopoly on the human fascination with the misfortunes of others.

The music in La Voix Humaine moves forward through short dramatic gestures, sometimes gathering into pools of shimmering harmonies. The music supports the dramatic needs of the text and doesn't take time outs for arias. One might think of it as a sung drama more than an opera. As such, its success in performance will depend on the dramatic resources of the soprano who is the sole cast member.

Davies, an English composer who lives in the isolated Orkney Islands off Scotland, became part of a 1960s compositional avant garde in England with a heterodox approach. He makes use of extended techniques and extreme sounds, but also draws on plainchant, Renaissance techniques and English folksongs.

Written in 1979, The Lighthouse combines a mystery tale and elements of a ghost story with a cabin-fever plotline akin to The Shining. The story is based on a 1900 incident when a lighthouse on the Hebrides Islands off the Scottish coast was found empty of its trio of lighthouse keepers by the crew of a passing ship. No one ever determined what happened to the men in the lighthouse.

The opera starts with the crew appearing at a court of inquiry, which gives them a Rashomon-like opportunity to show that no one remembers the same event quite the same way. From there, the story goes back in time to the men in the lighthouse, showing each succumbing to his own madness. One has guilt over his life of crime, another is driven to distraction by sentimental thoughts of love; the third is a devout Christian who becomes overwhelmed by apocalyptic visions.

Davies' score moves between abstract writing and sections that play with twisted visions of Salvation Army hymns, ballads and sentimental songs. The colorful use of orchestration and instrumental sound becomes as much part of the action as the actors/singers. For example, French horn solos fill the dramatic function of implied characters or forces not portrayed by the three-person cast. The vocal parts have tremendous range, requiring even the bass to belt out high falsetto notes.

These two pieces offer a different way to experience opera, as drama with music rather than as a series of numbers strung together by a thin plot. Nashville Opera presents itself with new challenges here—a good sign.

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