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Reviews

<em>Les mamelles de Tirésias</em>, Royal College of Music
01 Jul 2017

A French double-bill at the Royal College of Music

One might expect a satire on sexual stereotypes penned in 1917 to feel a bit dated in 2017. But, in these days of gender fluidity, with science making biological choice a free-for-all, and with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale having just hit US and UK television screens, Poulenc’s gender-bending Les mamelles de Tirésias - based on Apollinaire’s surrealist play and first seen at the Opera Comique in 1947 - proved a timely choice for the first half of RCM’s summer double bill.

Les mamelles de Tirésias, Royal College of Music

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Harriet Eyley (Thérèse)

 

Neil Warmington’s simple designs, illuminated by the mauve glow of Ben Ormerod’s lighting, emphasised the artifice and duality of Poulenc’s quasi-comic strip capers. A proscenium within the Britten Theatre’s own proscenium set the action at one remove; a door-opening at the rear led to nowhere in particular. The snakes of Gauloises smoke wafting above the café table, where two flaneurs supped Bordeaux, suggested a Parisian locale, but the graffiti, Paris ou Zanizibar?, injected a note of doubt and disconnection. Indeed, a disreputable duo, Lacouf and Presto - sung by Thomas Erlank and Timothy Edlin, respectively, with vaudevillian charm - have a fatal argument about their location, their deaths prompting a grand chorale epitaph which here was majestically melodious and morose.

Apollinaire’s zany tale is designed to defy logic. A French housewife, Thérèse, is bored of her duties as a woman and wife, and expresses her defiance by relieving herself of the emblem of her oppression, her breasts, which have turned into balloons and are swiftly punctured. She grows a beard, transforms herself into a man and, empowered by her new masculinity, sets out to conquer the world as ‘Tirésias’. In bewilderment and outrage, her husband, Le Mari, determines to effect his own sexual reversal, dons a floral frock and fathoms out how to spawn his own brood - all 40,000 of them … in a single day. He hits the headlines and the successful careers of his offspring bring him a tidy fortune.

Things turn sour, though, when a Parisian reporter tries to swindle him and a gendarme accuses his children of being the cause of famine among the people of Zanzibar. The intervention of a Fortune Teller adds to the zany mix: she foresees the death of the gendarme, then promptly fulfils her own prophecy by strangling him. It’s Tirésias in disguise, seeking reconciliation with her Husband. The ‘happy’ conclusion prompts a chorus for the people of Zanzibar calling upon the audience to go forth and multiply.

Ensemble Tiresias.jpgLes mamelles de Tirésias, Ensemble.

It must have been good propaganda for the post-war French government hoping to extol the virtues of large families and convince the populace that it was their patriotic obligation to increase the birth-rate. Indeed, the three-part overture - a parody of the Baroque - began ‘outside the frame’, with Kieran Rayner’s orotund Theatre Director stage reminding us of our demographic duties in times of war.

The score is a good choice for a student ensemble for the piece does not require voices of heroic stature but it does need an adaptable cast who can capture the youthful exuberance and deceptive lightness of the drama. It also needs a sterling Thérèse to initiate the absurdities and sustain the (in)credibility of the ensuing preposterousness, and in Harriet Eyley, the RCM were blessed with a fine singing actress who projected imposingly but with a vocal warmth which assuaged some of Thérèse’s feisty unreasonableness. The challenging coloratura was sung with penetrating precision and a sparkle of panache.

Le Mari and Elegant Lady.jpg Julien Van Mellaerts (Le Mari), Eleanor Penfold (Elegant Lady).

As Le Mari, New Zealander Julien Van Mellaerts displayed the characteristic ‘open, engaging tone’ and ‘muscularity and vitality’ that I’d enjoyed at the Kathleen Ferrier Award Final earlier this year. Van Mellarts delighted in the grotesqueries and improbabilities, and the brightness and power of baritone enabled Le Mari to hold his own against his wife’s feminist proselytising. His natural flair for comedy was shared by those in the secondary, largely generic roles, with James Atkinson perfecting the gendarme’s gesticulations and Benedict Hymas capturing the reporter’s rapaciousness.

Michael Rosewell conducted a clean and accurate rendition of Poulenc’s explosive score, which charmed in the lyrical episodes but needed a bit more drive and rhythmic bite to convince in the brassy burlesque.

As director Stephen Unwin twirled his cast through the chaotic sequence of scenes, some of the choreography was a little rough and ready, but the gentle clumsiness had its own charm and this production captured Poulenc’s delightful irreverence - the composer relished the response to the premiere, reporting that a part of the audience brings the house down with enthusiasm but the Puccini fans in the gods are outraged”.

This was a colourful and exuberant performance, but some of the opéra bouffe’s restlessness remained elusive. For, beneath the frivolous inconsequentiality there’s a lingering spirit of melancholy. Apollinaire had recreated a war-torn Montmartre, in which desire and destitution balanced on a knife-edge; writing in the post-WW2 years, Poulenc too evokes the calamitous recent past beneath the comic absurdities. The score’s historic allusions - to Offenbach, Ravel, Chabrier, even to the original incidental music by Germaine Albert-Birot which had accompanied Apollinaire’s play - somehow seem to deepen the nostalgic despondence, despite their frothy musical articulation.

The ‘action’ of Chabrier’s one-act, three-hander, Une éducation manqué, takes place on the wedding night of an ingénue bride and her fresh-faced groom whose education unfortunately has been defective - for his tutor-mentor, Pausanias, has taught him everything from theology to trigonometry but has neglected the finer ‘arts’ of nuptial etiquette.

Chabrier 1.jpg Julieth Lozano (Gontran) and Kieran Rayner (Pausanias).

It’s a slight piece but not without a musical elegance which was matched by Warmington’s simple chateaux-chic style, complete with a central window-seat from which the frustrated groom could gaze at the moon and reflect with mournful grace on the mysterious of marital engagement. There wasn’t much of a frisson between Julieth Lozano’s Gontran de Boismassif and his bride, Hélène de la Cerisaie, sung by Rosanna Cooper, which contributed to the deadening deadlock of the drama, but Cooper’s mezzo bloomed richly and Lozano exhibited vocal vivacity and a lively stage presence. Kieran Rayner took the role of the hapless tutor and his tricky patter number with his mentee was deftly delivered.

When a storm broke out, the artless newlyweds proved more threatened by the thunderous crashes than thoughts of sexual initiation. As they sought comfort in each other’s arms, one couldn’t help but have a twinge of nostalgia for carefree days of adolescent love.

Claire Seymour

Chabrier, Une éducation manqué: Gontran - Julieth Lozano, Héléne - Rosanna Cooper, Pausanias - Kieran Rayner.

Poulenc, Les mamelles de Tirésias: Theatre Director - Kieran Rayner, Thérèse/Tirésias - Harriet Eyley, Husband - Julien Van Mellaerts, Monsieur Lacouf - Thomas Erlank, Monsieur Presto - Timothy Edlin, Gendarme - James Atkinson, Newspaper Vendor - Ashlyn Tymms, Reporter - Benedict Hymas, Son - Stephen Mills, Elegant Lady - Eleanor Penfold, Woman - Laura Hocking, Bearded Gentleman - Conall O’Neill, Chorus (Isabelle Atkinson, Alice Bell, Jacob Bettinelli, Dominic Bevan, Laura Hocking, Barbara Jop, Stephen Mills, Conall O’Neill, Eleanor Penfold, Davidona Pittock).

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