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Originally published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 10:23 AM

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Singers, not spectacle, at heart of Seattle Opera double bill

Expressive voices support the heartbreaking stories told in Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” (“The Human Voice”) and Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” (“Sister Angelica”), both staged by Seattle Opera through May 18.

Special to The Seattle Times

OPERA REVIEW

‘La Voix Humaine’ and ‘Suor Angelica’

Directed by Bernard Uzan, with Gary Thor Wedow, conductor, through May 18, Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., tickets start at $25; (206-389-7676 or www.seattleopera.org).

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Opera can be a grand, over-the-top spectacle — like the “Turandot” that opened Seattle Opera’s season last August.

But it also can be more intimate and elemental, as the company demonstrates in its present double bill of Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” (“The Human Voice”) and Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” (“Sister Angelica”). This estrogen-heavy duo production may lack the bells and whistles of more spectacular shows, but as an examination of the human heart, it’s hard to beat.

Although both Poulenc and Puccini are dealing with rejected women in the depths of despair, what makes this pair of one-act operas work is the tremendous expressive quality of the principal and supporting singers. First to appear is Nuccia Focile, as the nameless protagonist (she’s called “Elle,” or “She” in French) of the one-woman show that is “La Voix Humaine.” Familiar to Seattle Opera audiences from such earlier roles as the passionate Tatyana (“Eugene Onegin”) and the generous-hearted courtesan Violetta (“La Traviata”), Focile is both appealing and harrowing as the distraught Elle.

She clings desperately to the telephone as her unseen lover of five years dumps her, and the orchestral score scurries dramatically upward to indicate her dismay. When the phone conversation is accidentally cut off, we see Focile anxiously stroking the receiver, as if willing it to speak. By turns beseeching, despairing, and momentarily furious, Focile makes the audience indignantly sympathetic ... and also appalled at her neurotic clinging, especially when she grovels to her callous lover (telling him “I know this is more painful for you than for me”). Her clear, expressive voice packs an emotional punch, and her unfussy, natural acting (directed by Bernard Uzan) makes this a tour-de-force performance.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow does a great job with the responsive orchestra, not only in the spiky, fast-moving Poulenc score but also in the lush sonorities of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica.” (Both shows employ basic but effective sets by Pier Paolo Bisleri.)

Maria Gavrilova is making her Seattle debut in the title role of Angelica; her voice could be described as “Puccini heroine with a side of Valkyrie.” It’s a big instrument, rising to a mighty high C, but Gavrilova also knows how to float that voice to suggest the fragility of her character. She does a great job with the showstopper aria (“Senza mamma”).

Not surprisingly, the great Rosalind Plowright is an utterly riveting Princess, the cruelly unforgiving aunt who wreaks havoc when she visits the erring Angelica in the convent after ignoring her for seven years.

Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus contributes to a radiant finale. Connie Yun’s lighting is a bit abrupt, but effective all the same, and the supporting cast of “Suor Angelica” is a fine ensemble team (including Susan Salas as the Abbess, with Robin Follman, Dana Pundt, Mary McLaughlin, Kim Giordano, Deborah Nansteel, Sarah Larsen, Linda Mattos, and Karen Early Evans, Melissa Plagemann, Lucy Weber, Jennifer Bromagen, and Sarah Mattox). Uzan’s direction is unfussy and effective.

The audience reception seemed cool, especially for the Poulenc. But no company can survive, artistically and financially, on a steady diet of only the top-10 favorite operas in blockbuster productions. Sometimes you have to shrink the budget — and stretch the listeners.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com.

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