You can’t accuse Seattle Opera of always playing it safe. Their most recent show was La Bohème, a crowd-pleasing, three-act standard with friendly melodies and a cast of good-humored gents who swarmed around a cheerful woman. This month, the production is decidedly—and refreshingly—the opposite. It begins with one suicidal woman singing for 40 minutes straight and ends in a convent.
The first half of the doubleheader—there are two one-act operas—is La Voix Humaine, which has “contemporary” written all over its central prop: a telephone. Nuccia Focile delivers a distraught solo performance as Elle, a woman in the throes of a breakup. As if saying good-bye on the phone isn’t already awkward, Elle is stuck on a party line plagued by dropped connections and eavesdroppers. As the audience hears only her end of the conversations, Focile conveys an invisible, silent cast: She haggles with the operator, scolds neighbors tying up the line, and, speaking to her lying lover, slips in details of her failed attempt to overdose on sleeping pills. Debuting in Paris in 1959, Francis Poulenc’s violent score sounds like a Hitchcock movie, and Jean Cocteau’s libretto moves with the jumpy pace of an early-20th-century, avant-garde French play (it was based on one).
The result is a show both stark and complex for those used to crowd-pleasers—or to my MTV-generation ears—but Focile’s velveteen voice and emotional spectrum jab you in the heart. Seattle Opera deserves props for this show, which expands the range of many opera newcomers and gives opera lovers a show that isn’t often performed.
But Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica, the second one-act, is arguably less successful. It opens with solemn church bells and a pack of nuns, strolling about like they’re sleepwalking on Ambien. In the title role, Maria Gavrilova is every bit as tortured as a princess stuck in an Italian convent should be when she discovers the death of her bastard child. But though Gavrilova and her chorus of sisters are technically flawless, the protracted tragedy grows dreary. Suor Angelica, the second in a trio of Puccini one-acts, is a nonstop bummer with little levity to be found in the music.
That the first half makes the whole show worthwhile is testament to Focile’s fierce 40-minute performance.
I’m sure some Puccini lovers will scold me. In my defense, I am not an opera buff; Suor Angelica is just not my thing. But you don’t have to be an opera student to like opera. In that vein, I want to give a shout out to Bravo!, the club for opera fans under 40. You get half-off tickets and then—get this shit—free drinks at intermission. There aren’t even lines: just tables packed with glasses of champagne, white wine, and red wine. Check it out at seattleopera.org/bravo.