Yvonne Kenny in Francis Poulenc's La voix humaine.
Listening to that sweet, sweet, twinkling girl in Rosmonda d'Inghilterra, could there be any hint that she had this in her? Yes, in fact, I think so. Though she is all silvery sheen and lightness of touch, there are, even at twenty-four, at the very beginning of her career, dramatic instincts which go beyond the requirements of bel canto. They're the reason she can turn the commonest phrases into seemingly spontaneous moments of bliss or of anguish: surely everybody in the cast gets an 'ohimè' or two (or five) but in hers there is true pain, not just operatic pain. Though musical through and through her singing seems such a natural outpouring of expression that when I had only heard her sing, and never heard her speak, I had difficulty imagining that the two could be different, that she could make any other sound. She began proper singing lessons at eighteen. Always - last night included - I feel I can still hear that eighteen year old. Her technique is superb but it is the art which conceals art; it gives us the gift of her voice, but never overwhelms or constitutes the voice itself.
Whatever Poulenc may have said about the necessity of a young woman, there is no question that the single role in La voix humaine requires the weight of experience. She has chosen the ideal moment to take on this part. No longer the quicksilver coloratura, but neither would one wish her to be; she has the warmth to captivate, the darkness to wound, and the ideal mix of maturity and youthful gleam to be entirely convincing. The line between speech and singing is a fine one here. At times one could almost forget she is singing at all; and yet the music of it is always present, underpinning every word and every moment, and from time to time bursting through, turning from parlando distress to intense, bittersweet lyricism. The musical setting, too, adds power perhaps out of reach in a spoken play. It is one thing simply to say or even to shout "je devenais folle"; quite another to sing it, orchestra blazing underneath, with a sustained fortissimo high C on the first syllable of "folle", dropping down a full octave for the second syllable - not to mention the gut wrenching effect of the sudden pianissimo which follows, and then the calm return to naturalistic recitative. She sings that high C, like every other note, flawlessly. A perfect sound, but it hurts; it is beautiful but it is not pretty. But elsewhere she is pretty, when pretty is called for. Again I say, there are times when one must remind oneself that she is singing; there are times, too, when that fact is gloriously obvious; often, whether this makes sense or not, both are simultaneously true.
As an actress too - though it is a strange thing to be dealing with the two separately - her achievement is supreme. Her movements, her gestures, her intonation and diction, all are so superb and so natural, were the orchestra removed and the piece performed as Cocteau's original spoken drama, she would be no less persuasive. Her acting is not stock-gesture operatic; it is barely even theatrical. Twenty-seven hours since the curtain dropped, I feel still as if I sat in that bedroom with her. And yet in its own way the piece - and this production particularly - pays tribute to the operas of centuries preceding, to death scenes and mad scenes and poison scenes and so on. La voix humaine at once intensely personal, intimate, dialogic, and proudly, recognisably operatic; her performance recognises and celebrates the fact.
I say that even in that 1975 Rosamonda I hear the potential for a performance such as this. It's true. Still, this was unlike anything I've ever heard or seen her do; for that matter, unlike anything I've ever heard or seen anybody do. This was a tour de force. She is an exquisite singer, an actress of moving, almost unbearable intensity, a sublimely talented performer, a gifted, brilliant, beautiful person. Leaving the theatre, the woman who had been sitting beside me turned around and said to me, "How does she do it?". "I have no idea," said I. "She's a miracle". And that, believe me, is what she is.
Update: the proper reviews are in:
The Age - Love in Two Acts
The Australian - Mad eroticism takes Kenny to different level (Yes, that it does.)