Ringing success



Jennifer Lien (soprano), Shane Thio (piano), Ivan Heng (direction and set design), Brian Gothong Tan (multimedia and set design)

Victoria Concert Hall/Last Saturday

Locally, there is a perceived gulf between the worlds of classical music and musical theatre.

This evening's production of La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) by Francis Poulenc, presented under the Singapore Symphony Group's VCH Presents series in collaboration with theatre director Heng and his Wild Rice team, goes a long way to bridge the gap, signalling promise for more good things to come.

Poulenc's La Voix Humaine is a chamber concert or, as the composer describes it, a "tragedie lyrique" for solo soprano with piano or orchestra. It has enthralled audiences around the world for more than half a century.

Based on a play of the same name by Jean Cocteau, it recalls a woman's last telephone conversation with her lover, who is soon to be wedded to someone else.

A simple but effective set with a centrally positioned grand piano, large projection screen for English surtitles and a Parisienne multimedia backdrop by Tan, and theatrical lighting all gave the Victoria Concert Hall the feel of a theatre.

The warm, rich acoustic of the VCH was integral to the success of the production.

Alone in her bedroom, Elle clings on to her ex-lover's every last word on the telephone. Flirting, pleading, manipulating and threatening suicide, she does everything she can to keep him on the line.

The libretto, based largely on Cocteau's text, has the conversation interrupted by poor connections, crossed lines and frequent cut-offs.

Singaporean soprano Jennifer Lien, who is based in the United States, deserved full credit for her excellent singing in the role of Elle. The performance was also backed by strong acting and natural stage movement.

She sings with a strong, clear voice and unfailing accuracy. She began calmly and lyrically, but as the work progressed, she gradually, almost imperceptibly, piled on the intensity and emotion as she desperately clung on to her failed relationship.

Thio was a superb partner on the keyboard and he doubled as the image of Elle's lover on screen and on set. Steadfast throughout, his playing was precise, colourful and dramatic, unperturbed even when Elle was climbing all over him in despair. Maintaining his high pianistic level while taking on a theatrical role seems to be second nature for this veteran keyboardist.

There was a touch of class in the stagecraft, thanks to Heng's direction and Tan's smoky, sepia-toned backdrop.

Everything was as slick as you would expect from a top theatre production, but the music was classically Poulenc and the result was a resounding success.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2018, with the headline Ringing success. Subscribe