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Review: Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tirésias), Aldeburgh Music

16:23 01 November 2012

Rarely performed nowadays and was last produced in Suffolk in 1958. A marvellous and entertaining production

As the Aldeburgh Festival and Aldeburgh Music gears up for a year-long programme of events to celebrate Benjamin Britten’s centenary next year, the recent Britten Weekend (an eagerly-awaited annual event for me) turned the clock back to the Fifties and resurrected Poulenc’s highly-entertaining two-act opéra bouffe, Les mamelles de Tirésias, based on Guillaume Apollinaire’s Surrealist play of the same name, first seen at the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival in a double-bill with Monteverdi’s Il Ballo delle Ingrate.

Life has turned full circle for Mamelles it seems as it was originally staged at Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall by the English Opera Group, the same venue chosen for this new production, which was directed with great flair, imagination and skill by Ted Huffman, an American stage director who cut his teeth with Robert Wilson at the Watermill Center.

In fact, the intimate space that forms the Jubilee Hall - which hosted the first performance of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival - was ‘home’ to the Festival until Snape Maltings Concert Hall came into being in 1967.

The setting of the opera was transported by Poulenc from the real African island of Zanzibar to an imaginary town called Zanzibar near Monte Carlo on the French Riviera, Apollinaire’s childhood home. This latitude, he said, was ‘quite tropical enough for the Parisian that I am’.

Huffman changed things too. His staging echoed the style of a 1940s black-and-white movie musical and as Poulenc incorporated a number of dance tunes into the score choreographer Zack Winokur added a few vaudeville-type dance routines that showed the cast as snazzy movers! Chorus Line! Hold back!

Owing to the limited space of the Jubilee Hall’s stage, it dictated a change of stage direction to what Poulenc originally stated in his production notes. Huffman decided to transport the set and the action to a Parisian café as opposed to the ‘town square’ of Zanzibar but in doing so kept to the composer’s wishes that the set must be instantly recognisable and in the French style. What better, then, than a café, the centre of French domestic (and political) life! Samal Blak - an individual winner of London’s Royal Opera House Linbury Prize for Stage Design 2009 - came up trumps by producing a simple set housing a long (revolving) bar that dominated the Jubilee’s stage.

And also to suit the limited space of the Jubilee, Britten suggested a two-piano arrangement which was to be played by the two composers. In the end, Poulenc pulled out citing health problems and his place was filled by English Opera Group’s repetiteur, Viola Tunnard. Cosily tucked away in the pit on this occasion were Roger Vignoles and Philippe Riga with Janis Kelly acting as vocal coach.

The work that Apollinaire - widely credited of coining the word ‘Surrealism’ - set out to write was completed in 1903 but Mamelles didn’t get its first staging until 1917. Poulenc started on his score in 1939 finishing it in 1944. Two years later Mamelles came to the stage receiving its première at the Opéra Comique in Paris conducted by Albert Wolff. The role of Thérèse/Tirésias was sung by the soprano Denise Duval and her henpecked husband by baritone, Paul Payen.

In the ’58 production, conducted by Charles Mackerras, those roles were dutifully played by Jennifer Vyvyan and Peter Pears and for this current staging two very talented American-born singers took the bull by the horns - soprano Ariadne Greif and baritone Matthew Norris. They excelled (and looked very comfortable) in their respective roles.

Greif radiated a rich and warm soprano voice, strong and accurate, while her stage presence was mesmerising to say the least. She put in a thoroughly commanding and effortless performance that thrilled a packed house while Norris equally matched her vocal skills and stage prowess in every conceivable way.

They made a good double act and so did American-born tenor J. Andy McCullough as Lacouf and Dutch-born baritone Anthony Birnie as Presto, a pair of drunken gamblers who after offending each other’s honour affectionately shoot one another but revive themselves just in the nick of time! They wouldn’t be amiss playing the lovable gangsters in Cole Porter’s musical, Kiss Me Kate, rendering that show-stopping number, Brush Up Your Shakespeare.

Bizarre, surreal and funny in every sense of the word, the opera’s plot is simple and straightforward revolving round Thérèse who’s tired of life as a submissive obedient housewife cooking and producing babies by the dozen that she packs in her humdrum life for one that offers her more adventure.

The scene in which Thérèse takes on the masculine role of Tirésias was marvellously entertaining and highlighted Greif as a born actress too. She partially opens her blouse from which her breasts fly out. They were represented by two white helium-filled balloons and for all I know they could still be stuck on the Jubilee’s high ceiling. With beard, moustache and hat she goes off in a flurry of activity in search of new horizons.

Thérèse’s Husband - left holding the baby, literally! - is not pleased with his wife’s rash decision but before she departs she ties him up and dresses him as a woman. He’s therefore left hook, line and sinker to cook and make babies. And, indeed, he does, overnight he manages to produce over 40,000.

A memorable scene comes about when the Gendarme (Johnny Herford) arrives on the scene sniffing out a crime but mistakes the Husband for a member of the opposite sex. The sexual innuendo was superb and my thoughts raced back to Pears in the ‘pretty girl’ role with Harvey Alan as the Gendarme making up to him.

As the deaths of Lacouf and Presto are mourned by the townsfolk, Thérèse marches off to conquer the world as General Tirésias embarking upon a successful campaign against childbirth. Her dumped Husband vows to find a way to bear children. Lacouf and Presto suddenly return from the dead and express both interest and scepticism in the idea.

However, the Husband’s baby project proves a great success and a visiting Parisian journalist (Steven van Gils) quizzes him on how he afforded feeding such a brood. He explains that his children have all been very successful in their respective careers and have contributed greatly to his wealth. The Husband decides to make a journalist son so that he can have more control over the media but that plan falls flat.

The Gendarme then jumps to attention to report that because of over-population the citizens of Zanzibar are in danger of dying of hunger. To help the situation the Husband decides to enlist the services of a tarot-reading fortune-teller. Hey, presto! One appears immediately and looks rather familiar under her mask.

She claims that her fertile Husband will be a multimillionaire but the sterile Gendarme will die in abject poverty. Incensed, the Gendarme attempts to arrest her but she strangles him and reveals herself as none other than Thérèse.

As the opera closes, Husband and Wife reconcile with each other and the whole cast gathers at the footlights as a chorus line-up (without high kicking!) urging members of the audience to make babies.

Ecoutez, ô Français, les leçons de la guerre Et faites des enfants, vous qui n’en faisiez guère Cher public: faites des enfants! (Heed, O Frenchmen, the lessons of war and make babies. You who hardly ever make them! Dear audience: make babies!). Ironically, the first three sopranos chosen for the role of Thérèse/Tirésias had to abandon the production on account of falling pregnant.

The opera was sung in English in a translation by John Cranko, Colin Graham and Peter Pears with a new performing edition prepared by the soprano Emily Hindrichs who also gave a song-cycle over the weekend in Aldeburgh Church.

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