‘Telephone,’ ‘Voice’ operas dial up drama

In an era of Bluetooth technology and smart phones, an evening of operas centered on the old-fashioned telephone might seem as quaint as if the singers were riding about the stage in horse and buggy. Yet, Sin City Opera’s production of “The Telephone” by Gian Carlo Menotti and “The Human Voice” by Francis Poulenc are oddly resonant with modern technology, seeming to comment upon both obsessive texting and dropped cell calls. Can you hear me now?

Company director Skip Galla brilliantly intertwines Poulenc’s tragédie lyrique with Menotti’s comic opera to create an evening of opera larger than the sum of its parts.

Mixing Menotti’s romantic comedy with Poulenc’s lyric tragedy removes the maudlin from the tragedy making it more human and gives the romantic comedy an added poignancy.

Soprano Marcie Ley makes a glamorously tragic Elle, the anonymous woman who has been jilted by her nameless lover in Poulenc’s French one-act opera “The Human Voice” (La voix humaine), sung in English in the Sin City production.

Ley fluidly moves through a stunning array of emotions as she at first puts on a brave front chatting about the mundane details of her day in a telephone conversation with her former lover, then attempts to play the coquette to entice him back and finally dissolves into a humiliating desperation.

Costume designer Ginger Land-van Buuren and makeup artist Marcela Rocha dress Elle in black silk lingerie with a ghostly pallor and black lipstick making her a figure of death.

Clinging to her lover’s voice through the cord that “keeps us both connected,” Elle tells her lover that she fell asleep with the telephone in her bed. Later as she wraps the telephone cord around her neck, she tells him, “A telephone could be a weapon that leaves no mess.” Like trying to use a smart phone with a limited network, Elle’s call to her lover repeatedly drops highlighting her despair that she has lost him forever.

The opera uses recitative to convey the quality of an actual telephone conversation, but when Elle tells her lover of her suicide attempt, the music builds to an aria-like passion.

Commentators have suggested that in the lyrical quality of the orchestral score we hear the lover’s response on the other end of the line. Ley gives a bravura vocal performance as Elle with a beautifully dramatic soprano.

In Menotti’s one-act opera “The Telephone,” Ben is attempting to propose to Lucy, if only she would hang up her Trimline phone long enough to let him. Soprano Athena Mertes makes a delightful Lucy. With her warm pixie eyes and bell-like voice, Mertes makes the exasperating Lucy—who could be as irritating as someone texting in a darkened theater—utterly charming. Bass-baritone Nathan Van Arsdale is perfect as the long-suffering Ben. Their superbly sung love duet when Ben finally proposes to Lucy offered the evening’s most enchanting music.

The operas were arranged for chamber musicians by music director Jack Gaughan who expertly led the four member ensemble of Dean Balan (keyboard), Lindsay Johnson (cello), Bryan Wente (clarinet, flute) and John Arnold (violin).

The revolving set design by David Sankuer beautifully delineated the 1930s black and white movie look for “The Human Voice” from the bright Technicolor 60s look for “The Telephone.” A single abstract glass-blown vase, black in “The Human Voice” set and electric blue in “The Telephone” set, created visual continuity between the two operas.

It was ascribed to Helen Keller that if any of her senses could be restored she would most want the gift of hearing because then she could hear the human voice. But the comedy and the tragedy of these two operas is how difficult it is for us to hear each other despite our continual flow of words.