The Human Voice composed by Francis Poulenc/Libretto by Jean Cocteau; English translation by Joseph Machlis. Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street WC2. 4****. Clare Colvin

To produce a one-person opera during Christmas and New Year’s week in which the soprano plays a woman planning to kill herself sounds like financial suicide, amidst the plethora of festive shows running at this time of year. There is however something about the Poulenc/Cocteau classic The Human Voice that is hard to resist. Premiered in 1958 and based on Cocteau’s 1930 play of La Voix Humaine it has attracted a long line of sopranos as a dramatic vehicle.

Argentinian-Italian soprano Natalia Lemercier is the latest, as singer-actress, to tackle the opera, in which a woman, known only as Elle, battles with increasing desperation to retain her hold on her lover, while he, unheard at the other end of a telephone, is trying to conceal where he is or with whom. The situation is complicated by the fact that Elle is renting a party line, and is continually interrupted at the start by the other user.

The small Charing Cross Theatre is an ideal space for the 45 minute mono. It opens to a dimly lit room curtained in shadowy grey, with a Chesterfield sofa centre-stage, and side table for the antique telephone. Slumped next to the sofa at the start, Natalia Lemercier, in pink satin pyjamas, is almost the double of the similarly clad Musical Director Elspeth Wilkes. Having adjusted the video angles, Wilkes moves to the piano, as the tale progresses from Elle’s determinedly plucky lie – Yes, far from moping, she had been to see her friend Marthe the night before when he hadn’t called – to the emotionally fraught admittance that she had actually already attempted suicide.

The picture builds up of a woman at the end of her tether. A flint-eyed clarinettist in a trilby (Kelvin Giles) adds a sinister note, and shadows form in wavering lines, like telephone cords. In a previous production that I’ve heard of, the protagonist had wrapped a telephone cord around her neck, but Lemercier follows the conventional ending, when she grips, as if to a lifeline, a small bottle of pills beside a large bottle of gold Tequila. The effect at the end is a portrait of love’s death, remorselessly spelt out by the chimes of the telephone.

Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, WC2N 6NL Box office: 08444 930650 till 30 December, at discounted tickets of £25.

Director: Alejandro Bonatto

Musical Director: Elspeth Wilkes

Set and Costume Designer: Nicolai Hart-Hansen

Lighting Designer: Rob Halliday

Video Designer: Claudia Tomaz

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