LSO/Barbara Hannigan review – playing havoc with the balance of sympathies

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Recently appointed associate artist with the London Symphony Orchestra, soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan has made much of her dual role, often singing and conducting simultaneously, with uneven results, both live and on disc. Her latest venture, first unveiled in Paris in January last year, juxtaposes Strauss’s Metamorphosen with a multimedia version of La Voix Humaine, Poulenc’s one-act opera depicting the final phone conversation between a desperate woman, Elle (“She”), and the unseen lover who is dumping her for someone else.

Her take on the work is idiosyncratic. At several points, Elle admits to lying, and Hannigan, in a video talk before her performance, posits the idea that the opera itself is a lie, arguing that Elle’s lover doesn’t really exist, and that “all this is a fantasy in her mind”. She notes Elle’s need to control her world, much as she herself controls the orchestra. “Perhaps she imagines that she is me,” she tells us.

Hannigan conducts and sings the opera largely with her back to us, while live footage of her face and torso, directed by Clemens Malinowski, is projected from multiple platform cameras on to a large screen behind the orchestra. Rhythmic gestures are dramatically integrated as she pounds the air in fury at a crossed line on her now nonexistent phone, or claws her face in self-pity. Though she is amplified, the role suits her well vocally, and there is plenty of the underlying orchestral sensuality that Poulenc demanded. Yet it remains misguided. Conducting yourself on film seems quite literally self-regarding, I’m afraid. And if Elle’s lover doesn’t exist then Poulenc’s heroine becomes a delusional narcissist, which plays havoc with the balance of sympathies.

Video was also promised for Metamorphosen, but didn’t, for whatever reason, materialise. Strauss’s great lament for the collapse of European culture in the last days of the second world war needs no visual accompaniment, and in this instance gained terrible resonance from being played on the day of the invasion of Ukraine. The performance, though, was overly restrained and understated, rarely attaining the harrowing immediacy the work ideally needs, which was a shame.

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