I must admit, I arrived at the Royal Opera House on Friday night for Cocteau Voices as a disciple of Scott Walker, and left with Jean Cocteau and Francis Poulenc entirely on my mind. The double bill of performances features a new dance piece based on Cocteau’s plays Le Bel Indifférent and Lis ton journal, interpreted musically by a brand new soundtrack by the irrepressibly mysterious former Walker Brother, and concludes with a performance of the Cocteau/Poulenc collaboration La Voix Humaine. I’m hardly a scholar when it comes to Cocteau’s work and with what knowledge I do have, I would probably have sided with Walker’s own recent assessment of Le Bel Indifférent as an “antiquated piece of misogyny.” The play, written for Edith Piaf, features a woman pleading for the attention of her lover only to be met with constant and complete silence. Both pieces are though, without doubt, excellent representations of failing relationships, caused by failing communication.
Cleverly, choreographer Aletta Collins’s Duet for One Voice, a dance interpretation of Le Bel, commissioned especially for this occasion by the Royal Opera House, turns the scenario on its head and features a man pleading for the affection of his lover, only for her to sit through his protestations and pleas in silence, her face covered by a morning edition of Le Monde.
The nearly thirty minutes of dance that ensued seemed to me to be impressive. I know little about the ins and outs of professional modern dance, but if the purpose is to showcase the beauty and contradictions of the human form, then this is exactly what I saw. The narrative of movement seemed to play out the different clauses and stages of sexuality, from rejection to acceptance, the ecstasy and passion of carnality, from connection to disintegration. It is of course an opposing and imagined reality, it could be reality, quite easily, it all depends on the say so of the woman, who sits deaf to the simmering sexuality, engrossed in her newspaper, her foot turning clockwise, repetitively, maddeningly, inpatient and uninterested. The emotion conjured on the faces of the dancers was really quite extraordinary and their energy and passion, seemingly limitless.
Scott Walker’s score is intimidating, as all of his recent work has proven. The multi-layered beauty found in Tilt and The Drift can only be discovered after repeat listens, and the same is no doubt the case here. Nevertheless the music was varied and often jarring, the dramatic and loud stops and starts that dominate The Drift return here, as does a musical experimentalism that sees, at one point, a chorus of barking dogs dominate the recording, followed by noisy industrial drones. And yet, there is much more to hang onto here, there are moments of real melody, something that has disappeared from Walker’s recent work. A solo trumpet consistently returns throughout the work, playing some wonderfully melancholic jazzy tones, which brings to mind dark street corners and sultry neon tragedy.
The second part of the evening features a performance of Francis Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, a short opera, for one voice, which sets a woman’s telephone conversation to a departing lover to music. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and was impressed that one woman, on the phone, could hold the stage and the audience’s attention for so long.
The words sung belong to Cocteau and depict a woman who is trying to put a brave face of her emotional disintegration. She tells her partner she has just returned from a restaurant, a dinner date, dressed up to the nines, when in truth, she is in her nightgown, make-up stale, bed unmade and surrounded by plates and bottles. She puts her mind at rest by considering herself footloose and fancy free, but deep down she knows her heart is settled on a destination and failure to reach it would cause it to break. All she thinks about is him she finally admits, and when he is going to ring and what life would be like without him. The ultimate fear of course is loneliness, dying alone, isolation, her friends, she admits, are settled, organised, while she still relies on hapless affairs and momentary passions.
It must have been one of the first works to consider the effects of a technological medium on love. Whereas today a similar piece would no doubt consider the art of breaking a heart via text message, here the telephone is studied as an instrument of torture. The line continuously breaks down and wires are crossed by confused telephone exchanges, a true reflection of the rudimentary Parisian communication system of the day. She jumps when the phone rings, she panics when it cuts out, she is held to ransom by its ring.
The way the telephone cord lingers around her neck during the final minutes of the performance and seems to twist like a constricting snake, suggests that the emotional trauma inflicted by the break-up is most likely irrevocably fatal. “Je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime,” she whispers, as the music concludes. Everything rests on it, nobody is free.
The stage direction and designs by Tom Cairns are simple, yet effective. Deciding to conceal the Southbank Sinfonia backstage allows the set to be close to the audience, unbroken by an orchestra pit and allows for an exceptionally involving experience. Nuccia Focile, the Sicilian singer, is tasked with pulling off this one woman act and she does so with panache. Her first notes sounded slightly crushed by the weight of first night nerves and the thoughts of what she had to meander through for the next fifty minutes, but she quickly recovered and delivered an engrossing performance.
This is certainly not a night for everyone, I heard grumbles on the way out, and it may prove difficult to maintain an audience for two exceptionally different pieces of work following one after another. However, if you approach it willing to accept the “mysterious accidents and heavenly calculations,” which dominate Cocteau’s work and the invisible undercurrents which run beneath the surface of relationships, then there is a great deal to learn and revel in here.