Talk about a heroine who comes out swinging. Thérèse’s nameless Husband has yet to start calling for “bacon” (code for sex?) and already she’s on the barricades, denouncing the patriarchy and swearing off motherhood. Next, she sprouts a beard, releases the balloons that have formed where her bosom used to be, and stomps off to conquer the world under the nom de guerre “Tiresias,” after the blind, gender-switching seer of Greek mythology.
Introduced shortly after the conclusion of W.W. II, Francis Poulenc’s first opera, Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias), is set to a surrealist playlet that Guillaume Apollinaire premiered just before the outbreak of W.W. I. Filmed last August, this fizzy performance from Glyndebourne is now available online.
Like a latter-day Aristophanes, Apollinaire delivered his message with a sledgehammer. “O ye French,” he has the character of the Theater Director tell the public, “heed the lesson of war. Make babies, you who have made hardly any.” When Poulenc came along, French birth rates were as abysmal as they’d been three decades before. In point of fact, Charles de Gaulle, too, was singing Apollinaire’s song, calling for 12 million beautiful postwar new French babies over the next 10 years. Thérèse’s abandoned Husband does his part, single-handedly producing 40,049 very chatty neonates overnight by force of will. Or so we’re told.
Charles de Gaulle was singing Guillaume Apollinaire’s song, calling for 12 million beautiful postwar new French babies over the next 10 years.
Les Mamelles de Tirésias unfolds in an imaginary Zanzibar, a locale the director Laurent Pelly’s empty box of a production leaves to our imagination. Never mind that the libretto drops the name of Picasso; the pop palette and crisp contours of the costumes evoke Matisse.
The show is even more delightful for the ear than for the eye. Poulenc bounces from irreverence to hymnic exaltation and all over the lot at the speed of thought. Here the orchestra carries the chorus along with the motor force of a Baroque passacaglia; here it splashes and sparkles like an Impressionist fountain. Poulenc’s references range from Offenbach, that carnivalesque “Mozart of the boulevards,” to Richard Strauss in late-Romantic raptures that recall Der Rosenkavalier or even anticipate the Four Last Songs. The music director Robin Ticciati, who might have sprung to life from the pen of Al Hirschfeld, navigates the swerving course like an Aladdin on his magic carpet.
Two frisky French charmers head the cast. As Thérèse, the soprano Elsa Benoit is a pistol, yet when the score blossoms with sensuality, so does she (just check out her Farewell to Breasts). The baritone Régis Mengus with his studly handlebar mustache is her heaven-sent foil—less a Chaplin (coy, camp) than a Keaton (deadpan, dignified). The Hungarian-Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt doubles as the oracular Theater Director and a daffy Policeman hot for a curiously macho ”mademoiselle” whose pronouns are actually “he” and “his.” The polka-dancing duo of dueling gamblers are another bright spot. But then, every member of the ensemble is a bright spot.
Les Mamelles de Tirésias is available for streaming on the Glyndebourne Encore Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii