Cumnock Tryst, Review: Danielle de Niese, Old Cumnock Parish Church,
By Keith Bruce
Danielle de Niese
Old Cumnock Parish Church
WITH its range of community projects and platform for new composers, regular diet of new works from founder Sir James MacMillan and appearances by star names in small venues, The Cumnock Tryst is a singular event in the cultural calendar. Even by its own standards, however, Thursday evening’s opening event was something special.
Danielle de Niese is familiar with the world’s largest and most glamorous stages, although she last appeared in Scotland singing show tunes in a big tent during a Covid-era Edinburgh Festival.
Described as “opera’s coolest soprano” by the New York Times and married to Gus Christie of Glyndebourne Opera (where she will sing Lehar’s Merry Widow next summer), her performance of Poulenc’s searing 1958 monodrama La Voix Humaine would be a bold way to open any festival.
The French composer’s setting of Jean Cocteau’s play is one side of a telephone conversation, as a jilted woman at first tries to put a brave face on the end of the relationship before revealing to her former lover that she has tried to take her own life. De Niese has made the challenging role her own – become the “Elle” de nos jours – including a BBC film of the work.
With Matthew Fletcher at the piano for this intimate version of the 45-minute work, and English surtitles above her on a screen, the soprano transformed Cumnock’s old kirk into a Montparnasse apartment, with the help of a table, an old Bakelite phone, and a small scarlet chaise longue that toned with her off-the-shoulder dress.
This was a beautifully-calibrated performance, not just to the scale of the space as de Niese only sparing unleashed the full power of her voice, but in the naturalistic way she portrayed her character’s slow unravelling. With immaculate diction, there was nothing over-wrought or histrionic in her approach to a work that can tempt such excesses.
As a bonus, although performed to open her recital, de Niese sang two brand new songs written for her by MacMillan, setting text by his regular collaborator Michael Symmons Roberts.
The Vows is a whip-smart modern take on the sort of sensuous statements of faith by convent composers we heard from Nardus Williams with the Dunedin Consort recently, while Soul Song, about a man who has a full size tattoo of a woman on his back in lieu of an actual partner, seemed oddly prescient of Halloween. Both were appropriately apt appetisers for the one-act drama that followed.