Dame Felicity Lott & Graham Johnson



1. Poulenc, Francis [41:00]
La Voix Humaine

Dame Felicity Lott,
Graham Johnson,

La Voix Humaine is presented as a deluxe package including both DVD and high-definition BluRay versions. It is not available for download at this time; but you can see a video trailer below

�Felicity Lott remains for me the quintessential Poulenc singer� Graham Johnson

La Voix Humaine is Poulenc�s one-woman tour de force to a text by Cocteau. It is a work which Felicity Lott has made her own � she gave a spellbinding performance at the BBC Proms in 2003: "Felicity Lott�s in wonderful form" said The Daily Telegraph and Classicalsource.com wrote �Having made the role very much her own in recent years, Felicity Lott duly encompassed its range of emotional minutiae with an impressive command ... and impeccable French.�

This new HD filmed performance is the world-premiere recording with piano and is here in both DVD and Blu-ray format. It is the first time (since Francis Poulenc�s own performances, accompanying Denise Duval over 50 years ago), that permission has been given for La Voix Humaine to be recorded with piano accompaniment. Mme Rosine Seringe, the composer�s niece, has granted a special dispensation to Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson � as a token of decades of special friendship between the artists and the Poulenc Estate � for this work to be produced.

Champs Hill Records is delighted to celebrate its relationship with Felicity Lott with this unique recording, in the fiftieth anniversary year of the composer�s death. Other �Flott� releases on the label include �Summertime�, �My Own Country� and a recital disc of Strauss songs. La Voix Humaine, premiered at the Opera Comique in Paris in 1959, is based on Cocteau�s 1927 stage monologue and is the most nakedly emotional of all Poulenc�s works. It presents a woman on stage speaking on the telephone with her (invisible and inaudible) departing lover, who is leaving her to marry another woman. She is frequently interrupted by problems with the unreliable Paris phone system of the time (not unlike contemporary problems with mobile phone signals!).

The drama is communicated even more powerfully by Poulenc�s score, telling us about the unheard half of the conversation and making the character of �Elle� more sympathetically, with genuine tenderness accompanying her desparate and manipulative attempts to keep her departing lover on the phone.




Francis Poulenc, born in Paris in 1899, lived most of his life in material comfort. He purchased in his late twenties a 16th-century mansion in Noizay � Le Grand Coteau � where from 1927 he lived and composed most of his music. Yet there was a price to Poulenc�s happiness. His early acquired wealth was due to both his parents dying when he was in his teens. His mother, an accomplished pianist who shared her love of Mozart, Chopin and the �adorable bad music� of Grieg and Anton Rubinstein as she gave Poulenc his earliest lessons, died when he was 16, and his father, joint owner of the famous manufacturer of industrial chemicals, died just two years later. Orphaned when so young, Poulenc relied more than most on the approbation and support of his friends, of whom he had many; the death of any friend or colleague hit Poulenc particularly hard, even before 1936 when he rediscovered his Catholic faith following the violent demise of fellow-composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud in a car accident.

 It is the pain of loss or threatened loss which fuels the powerful emotions of his final opera, La Voix Humaine. Poulenc was never a conventional opera composer: of his two previous operas, the first, Les Mamelles de Tir�sias, is a surrealist drama in which the heroine renounces her femininity, dispenses with her breasts and grows a beard; while the second, Dialogues des Carm�lites, is based on a never-filmed screenplay about a doomed convent of nuns which, Poulenc wryly observed, �lacked any love intrigue�. La Voix Humaine is no less unconventional, being one side of a phone conversation held by a woman who is devastated by the revelation that her lover of five years is leaving her for another. Yet such was Poulenc�s identification with her predicament and sense of devastation at her imminent abandonment that he wrote the opera at exceptional speed and with utter emotional conviction.

La Voix Humaine is based on a stage play by Jean Cocteau, mentor of the group of French composers Les Six of which Poulenc was a member. Significantly, Cocteau had also suffered early bereavement, his father having committed suicide when he was only nine years old (resulting in the young Jean becoming antagonistic towards his mother); this sense of loss was compounded when in 1923 his close friend, the prodigiously talented writer Raymond Radiguet � whom some biographers believe was Cocteau�s lover � died of typhoid fever. It was a blow Cocteau never recovered from; the following year he developed a life-long addiction to opium, which he originally took to alleviate his grief over Radiguet�s death.

Cocteau wrote his 40-minute monologue La Voix Humaine in 1927, the same year as his libretto for Stravinsky�s Oedipus Rex; it was first staged in 1930 by the Belgian actress Berthe Bovy at the Com�die-Fran�aise. The play is still celebrated as a tour de force for an actress, who not only has to deliver her role and convey the disparity between what she says about herself and her actual emotional state, but also has to convey fairly precisely the emotional roller-coaster she is undergoing as she hears her former lover�s side of the conversation, quite unheard by the audience. Adding to her anguish are the idiosyncrasies of the unreliable French phone system of that period, resulting in interruptions by another woman on the party line, or the line going dead without warning (a peril reintroduced in our time by the uncertain signal of mobile phones!).

There was a perhaps unexpected link between Poulenc�s final opera and his preceding Dialogues des Carm�lites, since both were effectively composed at the instigation of the Italian publisher, Ricordi editions. Herv� Dugardin, who worked in the Paris branch of Ricordi, had first suggested that Poulenc should make La Voix Humaine � recently revived by the Com�die-Fran�aise in 1953 � into an operatic vehicle for the great singer-actress Maria Callas. Having witnessed Callas acknowledging applause after a La Scala performance, Dugardin had written to Poulenc: �You ought to set for her is La Voix Humaine, since it�s written for just one woman, and then she could have all the applause.�

Dugardin was presumably quite unaware that Poulenc actually heartily disliked the telephone as a means of �artistic� communication, preferring either face-to-face conversation or writing letters. But this perhaps added even greater piquancy to a scenario where �Elle� (the play�s protagonist, whose name we never learn) is reduced to talking to her lover through such an unreliable and unsympathetic medium; as she herself says, when someone is reduced through the telephone to only �a human voice�, any cruelty is possible.

Thus on 25 September 1957, Poulenc wrote to Guido Valcarenghi, director of Ricordi editions: �Now...let�s speak about the future... I definitely believe that I am going to write La voix humaine!!!! Henze [the German composer] has relinquished it. I see this as a providential sign... I hope to be ready for 58-59. Cocteau accepts to create the d�cor and mise en sc�ne for the Paris premiere. Given her qualities as an actress and her experience with my music, it is understood that [Denise] Duval will create this �Voix� if it comes out of me.�

Poulenc knew the soprano Denise Duval since she created the title role of Les Mamelles de Tir�sias at its first production in 1947. She was then a young soprano who, having previously worked at the Folies Berg�re, now worked at the Op�ra- Comique. Poulenc had quickly become very fond of Duval, writing to his friend Rose Lambiotte: �If Th�r�se loses her breasts, me, I have lost my head for my interpreter who is as beautiful as the day, the most �chic� on earth, [has] a golden voice etc...� And immediately after the premiere of Les Mamelles he wrote: �I have an unbelievable Th�r�se who is stunning Paris with her beauty, her gifts as an actress, and her voice.� He subsequently wrote for her the role of Blanche in Dialogues des Carm�lites, and it was her talents as a singer-actress that he had in mind when he created both the role of Elle in La Voix Humaine, and the monologue La Dame de Monte-Carlo (text by Cocteau again, and another work Felicity Lott has made her own).

Shortly after returning from Milan in February 1958 Poulenc told Herv� Dugardin: �They are waiting for La voix. We will have Callas in Milan and Glyndebourne, [Denise] Duval in Paris.� As Poulenc composed the opera at great speed, he was conscious not only of his own emotional vulnerability, fearing as he did that his latest lover, the 29-year-old infantry sergeant Louis Gautier, would sooner or later tire of him and forsake him; he was also fully aware of Duval�s own tempestuous love life. She admitted afterwards that the opera �was an astonishing experience for me because I saw Francis Poulenc write it page by page, bar by bar, for me, with his flesh, but also with my heart wounds: we were then both in the midst of sentimental drama, we were crying, and this Voix humaine has been like a diary of our tears.�

Poulenc was soon writing to Dugardin: �I found, and this is the secret, all my themes. Two are extravagantly erotic... They smell of sperm, of between the thighs. When Elle notices that he is calling from some �ox on the roof� [bar] there is a whiff of incredible 1920s Parisian jazz. The theme of the lie (�If you were lying out of kindness�) is horrible (that weighs a ton). Fundamental: I found all the end, coming from a distance, when they no longer have anything to say to each other, before and after (�I have the cord around my neck�). Everything will be ready to write when I leave Cannes. I think I will compose it very quickly at Noizay in May. Blanche [in Carm�lites] was me, and Elle is me again, and... Louis [Gautier], by anticipation, because life will take him from me in one way or another, that angel. I am writing to you from his sheepfold while he prunes his olive trees. He is charming to me and (except at certain moments!) a tender, polite, and deferential son.�

In April 1958 Poulenc was again �on the road� because of Dialogues des Carm�lites, travelling to attend the opera�s performance at the San Carlo Theatre in Lisbon, Portugal. While there, Poulenc played a portion of La Voix for Yvonne, Marquise de Casa Fuerte, and a friend, both of whom he reported afterwards were reduced to tears, adding that the opera was being eagerly awaited by several opera houses.

Back in Noizay, Poulenc worked hard to complete the opera, and at the beginning of June cabled Dugardin that La Voix was finished. In recognition of Herv� Dugardin�s instigation of this opera, Poulenc dedicated it to him and his wife Daisy. He also wrote to Rose Lambiotte, telling her: �It is the saddest opera, the most heartrending, the most moving... that one could hear. Prepare a pile of handkerchiefs for the premiere.�

The result is perhaps the most nakedly emotional of Poulenc�s works. Compared to Cocteau�s original play, the drama is communicated all the more surely and powerfully since the music which complements Elle (whether played by orchestra or by piano) tells us more about the unheard half of the conversation than even the best actress could convey, while also effectively presenting Elle�s cause � her genuine tenderness and feelings for her lover � she who otherwise could so easily seem overly obsessive and unsympathetically manipulative in her desperate ploys to keep her departing lover, if only on the telephone. It was a work which meant much to Poulenc himself: towards the end of his life, he confessed that he would trade all of Dialogues for La Voix Humaine.

Although Poulenc conceived the opera from the start with its luscious and richly expressive orchestra, it has been often performed successfully with piano accompaniment, including by Poulenc and Duval who several times performed the complete opera or excerpts in concert. Poulenc had planned the opera to be driven very much by the soprano, who as an actress has some freedom in choosing her tempos and when to take pauses. It therefore seems a natural and ideal relationship to have the work performed in so intimate a partnership as singer and pianist. Felicity Lott has performed the role of Elle several times, both on stage and in concert, but this is the first visual record of her in the role (she has previously recorded La Voix Humaine with orchestra conducted by Armin Jordan); here she is joined by Graham Johnson, who together have built a strong artistic relationship over three decades, not least in performing Poulenc�s music.

Daniel Jaff�

"It is hard to think of two finer champions for Poulenc's music."


Christopher Dingle, BBC Music Magazine


"Lott brings this off with huge fluency in one small, attractively lit studio"

Steve Plant, Gramophone

"I can't imagine a better companion than this moving and intensely personal performance"

Nigel Simeone, International Record Review

“Such is Lott's command of the role and genre, that the piece feels far more like a film of someone, you are never aware of the artifice involve. She is not so much acting as living the role.”

Planet Hugill


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