From the score, all we know about the conclusion of La voix humaine is this: the telephone cord wrapped around her neck ("J'ai ta voix autour de mon cou") and the phone itself clasped to her, she lies in bed, tells him she's strong and then shouts at him to end it now, to hang up. Her last words are a series of ever softer "je t'aime" until the receiver falls to the ground and curtain drops.
In Rachel McDonald's production for Opera Australia, there's an added layer. The eagle-eyed (and the human-eyed whose gaze, unlike mine, wasn't trained immovably on Yvonne) might have spotted the clues before the revealing moment. I didn't. However, her lover's hat is on the floor. His scarf is on the bed. His gloves are on the telephone table. As she tells him is dog is "off his food" and hasn't moved for days, we can plainly see that the dog is lying dead in front of the fire. When she sings to her lover, "I know I've hurt you very much" she looks briefly towards the mantlepiece, and on it is what looks like a very mangled fire poker. Can you see what's coming? When they're cut off for the last time, he rings back but this time she doesn't answer: the phone slides up the wall and disappears, and she continues singing without it. She puts on his favourite red dress, which she told him in the beginning she was wearing, and some earrings, fixes her hair and makeup, and turns to greet an imaginary lover. Then she takes her barbiturate-laced whiskey, kneels down, says "I love you, I love you, I love you....love you" and drinks - and the sheet falls off her bed, and there's her murdered lover.
Leaving the theatre five times, I've heard a few theories as to just what went on. Does the point where she puts down the phone for good mark the moment where he came around - hence her greeting - and she killed him? This makes some sense, but for the fact that, especially on a second viewing, she subtly but undeniably talks to him with the knowledge that she has already killed him. As I mentioned, she looks at the fire poker when she says "I know I've hurt you very much." There are other lines sung with similar suggestiveness: "maybe [the dog] thinks I've caused you some harm" she sings, not innocently but with a touch of menace; and when she responds to some comment of his with "how could imagine me doing something so dreadful" (I paraphrase, I only have the French text and my memory of the translation) she rans her hand slowly across her dress, which she has lain on top of the bed and thus on top of his body. It would seem, then, that the entire conversation takes place after the fact.
Who's on the other end of the phone then? The devil, somebody suggested, perhaps responding to a reviewer's observation that the opera, with its skewed expressionist sets, appeared to take place in an apartment in "the lower reaches of hell". I don't think it's the devil. I think it's truly nobody, just in the way that she, with no name, is essentially nobody. My feeling is that the entire conversation takes place after she kills herself, that it is to some an extent a recreation of the events leading to her suicide, but also a sort of extended mad scene, an invented conversation. It's interesting that phone, technically speaking, never actually rings: the ring comes from the xylophone in the orchestra. If the constant disconnections and crossed lines are a reflection of her mental state, then surely it's possible (though I certainly don't think it's the only possible spin) that the entire conversation is itself a reflection of that mental state. Adding to that imaginary aspect, I wonder if perhaps it's a recreation not of a conversation they had, but of the conversation they would have had, if she hadn't killed him instead. Then again, perhaps she didn't kill him at all, perhaps that's her imagination. After all, it's only a dummy in the bed.
But you know what? For all these ideas, I'm perfectly happy to go without an explanation. I don't think that there is one. These additions to plot seems to me more atmospheric and suggestive than narrative: there is no need for the various twists to be strung together into a coherent 'what-really-happened' story, they merely exist as suggestions, as aspects of a fragmented consciousness. I come back again to the concept of the opera as a 40 minute mad scene, or death scene. Who is to say what is 'real' here and what is not? The set is stylisted; the dialogue on the other hand painfully realistic. Maybe when she tried to kill herself the first time, Marthe didn't in fact come to save her. Perhaps she's dying and dreaming all of this.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Personally I like it left open like that. There's a natural human tendency frantically to tie up these sorts of loose ends but a piece like this I think thrives on the not knowing. We don't know who she is, who he is, we only hear snippets of what has gone on between them for five years, and in the end, we can't really be certain what's happened, what she's done to him, who's dead. By my reckoning the body count as the curtain drops could be two, one or even zero.
Reviewers haven't been particularly fond of Rachel McDonald's take on La voix humaine, and when they say she complicates it excessively, I can see their point. Certainly the piece itself is strong enough to stand as is, and I have no doubt that Yvonne could make it just as exquisitely harrowing as simply abandoned and fragile, rather than abandoned, fragile and potentially murderous. I don't believe that McDonald makes the piece any better or more effective with her twists and turns - but I also don't think she does it any harm. The core of La voix humaine is not story, but psychology: it's not a ripping yarn, but rather a disconcerting window into a fractured psyche. If we realise that, and stop trying to assign single and definite meaning to the various layers of this production, then I think it starts to make sense in the way it ought.
I only have two (related) complaints. Because the sheet falls off the body at the end, just before 'She' takes her final fatal drink, and because the bed is on the other side of the stage, at the moment when all eyes should be trained on Yvonne, many are still trained on the mannequin in the bed. And because the ending is such a twist, people leave the theatre discussing that, when they should be discussing the incredible achievement by this gifted singing actress. Apart from that, however, I like this production a lot. I would also love to see a production without the extras. The only problem being, that the soprano who has introduced me to this wonderful opera - and I do love the opera itself now, not just the singer involved - has in that same moment spoilt me utterly for any other singer's version. That's an irrational sentiment, I know: it's also true.