Taking the woman’s side: Poulenc’s La voix humaine and Fiançailles pour rire from Paula Sides and Sergey Rybin

Taking the woman’s side: Poulenc’s La voix humaine and Fiançailles pour rire from Paula Sides and Sergey Rybin
Poulenc: Fiançailles pour rire, La voix humaine; Paula Sides, Sergey Rybin; VOCES8 Records

Poulenc: Fiançailles pour rire, La voix humaine; Paula Sides, Sergey Rybin; VOCES8 Records
Reviewed 3 June 2024

An intimate account of Poulenc’s exploration of the female experience through of a pairing of two of his major works, creating a satisfying whole

From VOCES8 Records comes this lovely disc pairing two of Francis Poulenc’s works with a direct expression of the female experience, his song cycle Fiançailles pour rire and opera La voice humaine, performed by soprano Paula Sides and pianist Sergey Rybin.

We begin with Fiançailles pour rire (Betrothal for laughs), written by Poulenc in 1939 and setting poems by his friend Louise de Vilmorin all of which deal with the female experience. The resulting cycle was premiered in Paris in 1942. 

The six songs do not present a narrative, instead each one reveals a different aspect of women in love. In her booklet note, Paula Sides talks about having sung these for some 15 years, and her performances have a familiarity and sense of absorption in subject and style. She is touchingly direct, moving swiftly between emotions. La Dame d’André is thoughtful, and wistful, it is clear the young man has no idea about his lady friend. Dans l’herbe is poignant at first but then stronger, as the poet remembers the death of a young man. Il vole is one of Poulenc’s chattery songs, the lover stealing away and the woman imagining him stealing her away, perky and bitter-sweet at first then more serious. Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant is simple, clear and poignant. Violon seems to be a bitter-sweet waltz, but Sides and Rybin find a surprising depth in it. Finally, Fleurs, all lyric melancholy with an expressive directness to the melody.

I have to confess that I was relatively unfamiliar with this cycle and loved Sides and Rybin’s performance, Sides brings a warmth to the changeability of Poulenc’s music, always touching and frequently poignant.

Poulenc’s 1958 opera, La voix humaine takes the female experience far closer to anxiety, obsession and depression. Female experience? Perhaps, as Richard Stokes suggests in his booklet article, there is an element of identification similar to the way Tchaikovsky identified with Tatyana in Eugene Onegin. Certainly, Poulenc’s affair in the early 1950s with Lucien Roubert had taken Poulenc to the very edge; Roubert was terminally ill during the writing of Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmélites (in 1953), which was written for soprano Denise Duval. And it was for Duval’s talents as a singing actress that La voix humaine was written.

La voix humaine was written for orchestra, though the full ensemble rarely plays, but Poulenc produced a piano version though he was reputedly unhappy with the idea of it being used in performance. The advantage becomes clear immediately from this recording as Rybin’s playing is full of colour, timbre and texture whilst allowing space for Sides’ soprano. 

My first listen to the recording made me think that Sides and Rybin brought out elements rather different to others. There is a space and clarity to their performance, whilst keeping the momentum of the drama. Sides feels as if she as giving us a highly personal, intimate rendition yet, though the result is profoundly moving, the performance seems to me to be slightly less directly about intense neuroses and more about an expression of conflicting and flickering emotions.

Sides never pushes Elle over the limit, she remains poised and direct, yet she uses the space to make each word, each syllable come out in its own distinctive way. Like Rybin’s piano, Sides’ Elle is full of colour, timbre and meaning. This attention to detail, combined with Sides’ use of vibrato in her voice, gives Elle a certain fragility, this is a profoundly touching account of the opera, especially as we move towards the end. But underlying this is the inner strength of Sides’ voice [this is a soprano who has sung roles like Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for ETO, see my review].

Throughout the whole performance you felt the sense of Sides and Rybin performing as one, and addressing us directly, so it did feel like a sung drama rather than something conventionally operatic. And the use of piano, far cooler than the orchestra, provides a fitting contrast and support to the warmth of Sides’ emotional performance. Overall, I took away the sense of space and the overall mood of serious melancholy.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) – Fiançailles pour rire (1939/1942) [11:24]
Francis Poulenc – La voix humaine (1958) [49:19]
Paula Sides (soprano)
Sergey Rybin (piano)
Recorded 14 & 15 January 2023, Potton Hall, Suffolk
VOCES8 VCM159 1CD [60:33]

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