Poulenc - Les Mamelles de Tirésias

Opéra Comique, Paris, Wednesday January 12 2011

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot. Production, sets and costumes: Macha Makeïeff. Lighting: Pascal Mérat. Choreography: Thomas Stache. Thérèse/La Cartomancienne: Hélène Guilmette. Le Mari: Ivan Ludlow. Le Directeur de théâtre/Le Gendarme: Werner Van Mechelen. Presto: Christophe Gay. Lacouf: Loïc Felix. Le Journaliste parisien: Thomas Morris. Le Fils: Marc Molomot. La Marchande de journaux: Jeannette Fischer. Actor: Robert Horn. Orchestra and Chorus of the Lyon Opera.

Le Mamelles de Tirésias was, thanks to friends, the first opera I ever knew by heart. It introduced me to Apollinaire and taught me how to say “combine harvester” (and much more) in French. I continue to find it a more interesting work – words and music – by far than Dialogues des Carmélites. And those who dismiss it as a “bit of fluff” (it has happened) might read what Poulenc had to say about it: “I do believe I prefer this work to everything else I wrote… If people want to form an idea of my complex musical personality, they will find me quite exactly myself in Les Mamelles de Tirésias.”

Perhaps because it’s short (posing the problem of what to add to the programme to flesh the evening out), perhaps because it remains an unusual piece, perhaps for other reasons, Les Mamelles isn’t performed often, and when it is (a) it may be under-cast, perhaps because star singers don’t want to take the time to learn it, and (b) it may be put on cheap or directed as silly farce, which it isn’t; it’s as tricky to get right as Offenbach. The current Paris production, up from Lyon, was the best I’ve seen and heard.

I imagine it must be quite daunting for young singers to attack Les Mamelles with Denise Duval and Jean Giraudeau still floating around on EMI, though they may take comfort in its being less well-known than Norma, over which the ghost of Callas hovers. Hélène Guilmette, though near inaudible in the frequent rapid patter, nevertheless had a very fair stab at Thérèse. She was more at ease when she had time to “seat” her notes, as the French say, and gamely hit all the top ones while still acting the part.

Ivan Ludlow had me perplexed, not only because he was - though tall and muscular (huge biceps) and suitably ungainly in a long, flimsy dress - a rather placid husband, lacking, as one critic put it, the vis comica, but also because I didn’t recognise the vocal line. Like anyone who knows the piece well, I suppose, I have the Cluytens and Ozawa recordings in mind, both with tenors. Any time I hear a baritone in the part, it isn’t exactly that the notes are not the same, but they are, as it were, distributed differently between octaves. To find out once and for all what Poulenc actually called for, I’ve ordered a vocal score. We’ll see…* If Ludlow had reworked the part to suit his voice (and there are illustrious precedents: I remember Caballé as Cleopatra, or perhaps it was Cleopatra as Caballé, in Giulio Cesare) it wasn’t a great success, with shaky falsetto top notes being only part of the trouble; yet in the end he was, in a way, engaging.

Werner Van Mechelen, the Directeur, was especially strong and moving in his opening tirade, with his head bandaged like Apollinaire; and the best of the evening were Presto and Lacouf, done up to look like Prince, in black-and-white print suits on electric scooters. The orchestra was lovely, setting just the right tone (not an easy task with Poulenc part bouffe, part lush, swooning over Paris).

I’ve seen Les Mamelles paired with Dido and Aeneas. I don’t remember what else. La Voix Humaine? In this case, the evening was rather surprisingly presented as a “soirée Dada.” Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising, but I’d never thought of either the play or Poulenc’s music in that light, having for some reason always thought the former from 1903, though first performed in 1917, by which time the term “Dada” had been invented. The production was set in a rather sinister 20s circus. It opened with rehearsals backstage, to a Shostakovich foxtrot, involving a saxophonist, guitarist and trombone player from the pit done up as (blue-and-white, rather than black-and-white) minstrels in Afro wigs, under the humourless orders of a white-faced, Italian-style clown in spangled blue, who turned out to be something of a ringmaster. He spoke, throughout the evening (though not often as his part isn’t actually in the play) in English, perhaps picking up the “Hands up” and “my dear” in the text. It continued, without interruption, with Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit, introducing characters both in and not in the original, including Thérèse and the husband (bickering), Presto and Lacouf and a “vieille danseuse,” but also a black boxer, slick-haired acrobats, a giant pipe on wheels, for people to ride on, and a live bull.

This, I know from what I heard afterwards, was confusing to some people, who thought it was all part of the opera and found it odd no-one sang for so long. The production, once the Directeur had got his manifesto out of the way, carried on in the same busy, circus vein, with the male chorus members as gloomy white clowns in high, white, stove-pipe hats with tiny red lips and the women as jolly, hand-waving ones in baggy black and white and enormous clown shoes. There was a caravan that served all kinds of purposes, now with a boxing ring on top, now with a milk-bottle production line inside and out. There were “Montparnasse” period projections (including some Man Ray) in hazy black and white to the left, and when the “inhabitants of the hive” came up in the text, an acrobat in a bee suit flew up into the flies. The journalist son wore loud checks and carried a chihuahua; the policeman was (oddly, among so many 1920 references, too many, I don’t doubt, to pick out) lieutenant Colombo and was aided at some stage by a basset hound. There was a strong woman with dumbells and siamese twins in silver lamé, there were those acrobats, with odd black and yellow socks and suspenders, leaping about and Presto and Lacouf on their scooters, there was a male Josephine Baker (Brazilian, I should think, from his name) with golden bananas and a huge grin, there were men dressed as nannies (“male nurse” took on a new meaning) rocking an assortment of vintage prams, and the chorus, at the end, male and female alike, stripped down to spangled leotards and did a fan dance (red and pink ostrich feathers), with Josephine, on the front edge of the pit. It was fun and it worked.

The reservations I had were that those in the audience not knowing Les Mamelles might wonder what was going on; and, more seriously perhaps, that a production pushing its Dada credentials somehow undermined itself by setting the shenanigans in a circus. They would surely be more bizarre, by far, on the Côte d’Azur?

*The score eventually arrived and confirmed that I am just not used to the baritone version, as sung by Ludlow.