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Lyric Opera: Les Mamelles de Tirésias

by Peter Hurley

Melbourne continues to show its appreciation for opera in intimate settings. On opening night, it was a full house in The Loft at Chapel Off Chapel. This performance space seats 150, so this is an ‘Off-Broadway’ style production.

Occupying the traditional position of overture – that is, audience -settler – it began with a slightly bewildered Dolly Diamond warming up the audience, alternately berating audience members for being preoccupied with their hand held devices, and then encouraging us to use them – though silently – during the show. Diamond’s threats to those unwise enough to sit at the front and not pay this diva sufficient attention were worth the price of admission alone.

Based on Guillame Apollinaire’s 1917 play of the same name, Francis Poulenc developed Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias) into his first opera, premiering it in 1947. In both incarnations, the timing coincided with government directives to repopulate the country after the ravages of war.  Knowing this in no way prepares one for the subversiveness and pure fun in the treatment of this solemn edict.

Therese appears, with a comically oversized bosom, and sings about the difficulties this gift has caused her. It is clear that it has come to represent everything that impedes her in her desire for fulfillment. Not only do these breasts define her as a woman, they shape how men see her, and tie her to domestic servitude. She jettisons them in a most comic scene, recasts herself as a man, and seeks a range of education and life experiences previously denied her.

Her husband, feeling emasculated by this, adopts the outer trappings of femininity. He seems happy enough with this until a misguided gendarme becomes persistently amorous. He then works out a way of giving birth to vast quantities of babies without the need for female reproductive organs, or co-operation for that matter.

The consequences of all of this play out in richly amusing and often unexpected ways until husband and wife finally reconcile having found ways to satisfy their life aims. It is easy to allow each surreal scene to amuse in its own terms and think that this is nothing but a romp, but like all good comedy, there really is a thesis at work. Les Mamelles de Tirésias reveals much about gender, sex and society,

That the piece is bookended by the heavy-handed voice of bureaucratic pronouncement that it is our responsibility to procreate seems to contain a subtle lampoon in itself. Stephen Marsh in the role of theatre director brought the layers of this to life.

The staging certainly shows an appreciation of camp, which suits the work. If anything, I wanted the performers to turn up the camp another notch. Or perhaps in Poulenc’s time the mood would have been more arch than camp – I fear that arch is extremely unfashionable today, and audiences may no longer get that approach to the humour. A number of times, people around me were noting references to other operas, but though the piece is without a doubt a ‘nod to the knowing’ it wasn’t necessary to have this background to enjoy the piece. This was most clear to me, eavesdropping on foyer conversations as I do.

Musically the score is rich – it bristles with references to a range of styles, as well as delighting with the full range of late romantic French harmonic and textural colour. At one point, it was made obvious to me that even contemporary jazz pianists owe this school a huge debt. The breathtaking switches of style – from comic, to declamatory, to faux historic to ravishing beauty underline the surreality of the whole work.

This performance bubbles with the exuberance of a young cast taking delight in discovering what they are capable of doing. The energy is truly infectious.

Therese/ Tirésias was played by Kate MacFarlane – a coloratura soprano of light and clear tone, Her husband was played by Raphael Wong. His ever-growing vocal assurance is exciting to watch in the several roles in which I’ve now seen him. Here he also shows some real comic ability, as well as exemplary diction. In fact the enunciation of text by the whole cast was wonderfully clear almost throughout; only occasionally did I find I had to work a little harder to get the text.

Overall the rest of the cast – Sabrina Surace, Emilia Bertolini, Alison Lemoh, Timothy Daly, Alastair Cooper-Golec, Bernard Leon, and James Young performed both their roles and the ensemble singing beautifully.

The score here was presented from the two piano reduction arranged by Benjamin Britten for his Aldeburgh Festival of 1958. It was performed with real style and clarity of texture by Simon Bruckard and Peter Toohey.

Direction by Cathy Hunt made full use of the space and performers’ capabilities, Simon Bruckard’s musical direction assured balance and well judged tempi throughout. Costume design by Lucy Wilkins was wonderfully eclectic, but I especially enjoyed the early modernist references. Set design by Robert Smith and Lighting design by Shane Grant did much with simple elements, always effectively placing the action. Choreography by Joel Fenton underpinned the action as well, but the ballet was fascinating in itself.

Lyric Opera of Melbourne continues to delight with these boutique productions. Intimate, wittily staged, well sung and physically performed – it warms my heart that these performances go on here. Long may they continue to do so.


Editor’s note: Reviewer  Peter Hurley attended  Opening night of Les Mamelles de Tirésias, a production of Lyric Opera of Melbourne at Chapel Off Chapel on April 7, 2018.

Its fifth, and final, performance is April 14, 2018.

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