Barbara Hannigan turns La voix humaine, a timeless opera, into a narcissistic gimmick

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Barbara Hannigan on stage at the Barbican last night - Mark Allan
Barbara Hannigan on stage at the Barbican last night - Mark Allan

Opera plots are seldom more straightforwardly non-existent than that of Francis Poulenc’s 1959 one-woman show La voix humaine, a compact 40-minute work evoking the agonised last phone-call of Elle, who has been abandoned by her lover. Or is there more to this than we hear – or don’t hear – from just one side of the call?

Things certainly get more complicated when you have the all-singing, all-dancing soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan on board, who approached her London Symphony Orchestra performance by suggesting that the whole thing might be Elle’s fantasy and there had perhaps never been a lover at all.

Fair enough, but one ought to feel some empathy for the character, which was hard here as Hannigan unpacked all her tricks in this short early-evening programme as part of the LSO’s Half Six Fix series. The piece is timeless, since human break-ups and telecommunication breakdowns are still part of life. The details of the original Cocteau telephone monologue on which Poulenc based his opera may now be vintage stuff, in its reliance on crossed lines and an operator who connects the callers, but a modern interpretation is perfectly possible, given how easily today’s mobile phones disconnect. Plus ça change, as Poulenc would have said.

Elle may or may not be a fantasist, but here she was certainly a narcissist. While Hannigan conducted and sang, acting up a storm with her back mostly to the audience, a giant screen behind the orchestra projected live video (directed by Clemens Malinowski) of Elle’s expressions and gestures. By dividing attention between the singing and the hyperballetic conducting, the performance became all about Hannigan, rather than poor Elle. The star made it impossible to believe in the plight of the character, still less to feel for her.

Never knowingly underperformed, the multi-talented Hannigan is of course a phenomenon, and in a way, her manic energy suited Elle’s state of mind. Yet choreographic contortions on the podium, and balancing on one leg while conducting, do little to relieve the monotony of a piece that works best in the hands of a great singing actress who also knows the power of stillness. When for two brief passages, Hannigan turned to face the audience and dialled down the antics, her performance became communicative.

Poulenc was inspired to write this work by the soprano Denise Duval, whom he called “the nightingale of my tears”, and he would have expected future singers to colour the lines with varying tone. Hannigan’s highly dextrous voice, though, is essentially unremarkable in its tone, and her monochromatic delivery was highlighted by amplification, a regrettable necessity given that she had her back to us most of the time.

The LSO played with requisite sensuality, also bringing stillness and resignation to the closing pages. But with the conductor-soprano announced earlier this week as an LSO Associate Artist, the orchestra seems to have become the latest to pander to the attention-seeking performance style of La Shenanigans.

Until tonight. Tickets: barbican.org.uk

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