Last weekend I was at the beautiful Grand Theatre in Leeds, watching two very different love stories descend slowly into the same tragedy. One of the stories was set in the 195o’s, the other late 17th century. Both were equally gut-wrenching. If you’re looking for my usual romantic happy ever afters today, don’t read on. If you do want to read on, pour yourself a stiff drink and get a box of tissues ready!
The first story is La Voix Humaine, by Francis Poulenc (1959)
Opera North’s production of this story begins in a claustrophobic dressing-room, with a woman in a black shift and green wrap lying sprawled on her bed. Jean Cocteau, who wrote the play on which it’s based, said he wanted it to look like the scene of a murder.
But the woman (Elle) isn’t dead. She is waiting for her ex-lover to ring her. When the phone trills, Elle comes alive. For the next forty minutes we hear her in a one-sided conversation, interrupted occasionally by the operator and broken up by crossed lines, which all adds to the impression of tension and anxiety.
Elle’s ex-lover is getting married the next day, and this is the last time they will ever speak. Elle becomes increasingly despairing. At one stage, when the phone lines get crossed again, another woman appears to be eaves-dropping. She tells Elle to forget her ex-lover, and that all men are the same, which I thought was a nice touch.
It all starts to go desperately wrong, though, and the final straw is when the ex-lover tells Elle he’s taking his new woman to the same hotel in Marseilles that he once took her. Can you believe it? I certainly couldn’t. They finally say their goodbyes. Elle’s heart is absolutely broken. She puts down the phone, says a final whispered “I love you” to the empty dressing-room and forces down the entire contents of her sleeping-pill bottle. It was a superb performance by Lesley Garrett.
Then came the interval. As you can imagine, I was in need of a fortifying glass of wine by this time. And I needed it, because more was to come.
The next story was Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell (1689)
A totally different century, but a similar tale of tragic love and abandonment.
Opera North’s production begins in another bedroom, with Dido lying on her bed in a black silk shift and green wrap. (And by the way I thought the whole staging and production of both pieces was, as usual from Opera North, really brilliant.)
This is the tale: Aeneas is a prince from Troy, a refugee from the war. He arrives in Carthage, where Dido is queen. Dido is a widow who, after her king’s death, took an oath never to love again.
But Aeneas has other ideas. The songs sung by his sailors, who plan to dump any lovers they meet on their travels, should have given Dido a clue:
“And silence their mourning/ With vows of returning/ But never intending to visit them more.”
To be fair to Aeneas, he does truly fall in love with Dido. But Dido is pursued throughout the opera by a vindictive witches. These were portrayed superbly by Opera North, I thought. They all looked exactly the same as Dido (see photo) and kept appearing, sometimes in ones or twos, sometimes not moving, sometimes following her in a line. It was all quite creepy and weird and freaked me out a bit.
Anyway, the witches trick Aeneas into believing he must abandon Dido, and so he sets sail again, without saying goodbye.
Dido is heartbroken, and the opera ends exactly the same as La Voix Humaine.
I really enjoyed both these operas very much. I hope I haven’t depressed you by recounting the stories. If opera is not for you, and you want to hear a more modern interpretation of Dido’s wonderfully moving lament, When I Am Laid in Earth, try this beautiful version by singer Alison Moyet.
Now I need to go and lie down in a darkened room.
Do you like opera? Are there any other types of tragic love story you’ve really enjoyed, in films, novels or television? If so, I’d love to hear from you!