Richard Bratby

Astonishing, if unnecessary, grandstanding: Barbara Hannigan’s La voix humaine reviewed

Plus: English Touring Opera's Bohème has a refreshing energy and immediacy

Astonishing, if unnecessary, grandstanding: Barbara Hannigan's La voix humaine reviewed
The sheer dazzle of Barbara Hannigan’s virtuoso multitasking made it impossible to lose oneself inside the character. Image: Mark Allan Photography
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LSO/Barbara Hannigan

Barbican Hall

La bohème

Hackney Empire, and touring until 3 June

I think it was when she leaned forward and balanced on one leg that Barbara Hannigan jumped the shark. It wasn’t just a question of physical agility, although that was impressive enough. Hannigan performed her on-the-spot acrobatics while singing; the results were projected on to a big screen by three remote-controlled cameras, which zoomed in on her eyes, merged blurry images of her face and occasionally froze, meaningfully, on a particularly arresting posture. She did all this at the same time as conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Poulenc’s one-woman opera La voix humaine, though that wasn’t really what this was about; at least, not by the time she was on one leg. It reminded me of the Brummie schoolkid who, taken to an orchestral concert and asked for his thoughts, replied: ‘The man with the little stick was a very good dancer.’

Hannigan doesn’t use a stick, not that this should matter to the audience. It’s easy to get hung up on a conductor’s physical gestures, and particularly if you’re not really listening to the music. The suggestion that (say) a female conductor’s hairstyle is ‘distracting’ in performance is a useful cloak for old-fashioned misogyny; grumbles about ‘hyperactive’ maestros tend to be a front for a similarly unmusical agenda. The fact remains that the only people who absolutely need to concern themselves with a conductor’s expressions and movements are the people at whom they are (or should be) directed – the members of the orchestra. Good conducting is whatever achieves the most convincing musical result.

That, sadly, is where Hannigan – well, ‘fell short’ is not remotely the right phrase. By any standard, she’s a phenomenon: a singer and actor of daredevil brilliance, seemingly never happier than when hurling herself, body, soul and (formidable) voice into some epic avant-garde ear-tangler. The LSO has just named her as Associate Artist for the next three years; clearly, the musicians find her inspiring, and when an artist exudes creativity as powerfully as Hannigan does, even hardened orchestral foot soldiers have been known to excuse the occasional glitch in the time-beating department. Not that this seemed to be a problem, despite the curiously bland performance of Strauss’s Metamorphosen with which Hannigan had opened the concert. The orchestral playing in La voix humaine was objectively excellent: vivid, sensuous, and delivered with flashing precision. (It goes without saying that she can sing the socks off the piece, too.)

No, the issue here was that Hannigan overshot, dropping a megaton solution on an artistic problem that demands forensic emotional precision. She explained that she imagines the entire drama as a fantasy taking place inside the protagonist’s head (Poulenc’s desperate heroine spends the entire opera on the phone to an unseen and unheard ex-lover; it’s intimate to the point of being harrowing), and perhaps if we’d seen the video and the surtitles alone – or she’d ditched the video and dialled down the superfluous physical theatre – that might have borne fruit. As it was, the sheer dazzle of Hannigan’s virtuoso multitasking made it impossible to lose oneself inside the character, or even to feel the existence of a vulnerable, believable individual beyond the performer herself. Poulenc’s heroine is called Elle (she); this was all moi. And yet Hannigan sang, at times, with a tenderness that made the grandstanding seem even more redundant. If only. It was astonishing, but it wasn’t really La voix humaine.

English Touring Opera opened its new national tour with La bohème at the Hackney Empire; a healthy staple from a company whose spring itinerary covers 21 different venues from Devon to County Durham. There’s occasionally a note of condescension in coverage of ETO’s work; one or two critics, you sense, who slightly resent the schlepp out east to see opera destined for the provinces, when they could be pontificating over a glass of blanc sec in the Floral Hall. In truth, ETO almost never compromises on artistic quality or ambition. This company was responsible for the most intelligent production of Eugene Onegin in recent years, and ETO routinely throws its entire weight behind rare but deserving repertoire, whether Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride or Tippett’s King Priam.

Spookily enough, ETO is touring Bohème in repertory with Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel: a Russian opera about a delusional autocrat launching a catastrophic war. More about that in a couple of weeks, if we’re all still here. For now, James Conway’s stripped-down, Dickensian Bohème is just as enjoyable as it was first time around, in 2015. The 27-piece orchestra (Dionysis Grammenos conducts) sounds as though it’s three times the size, and the youngish cast is utterly engaging –with Francesca Chiejina phrasing exquisitely as an ardent, impulsive Mimi. The small scale of the sets and the energy of the performances gives the whole show a refreshing immediacy. In short, it felt right.