Les mamelles de Tiresias/La voix humaine in the review of Glyndebourne: in the end, mesmerizing

Thérèse (Elsa Benoit) and The Husband (Régis Mengus) (Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper)

Thérèse (Elsa Benoit) and The Husband (Régis Mengus) (Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper)

The eponymous appendices to Poulenc’s comic opera Les mamelles de Tiresias are emptied by their owner, Thérèse, when she announces that she is a feminist and wants to rule the country – or go to war. She grows her mustache, leaving her baby-spreading role to her husband, who demonstrates that anyone can do it, with a little ingenuity and willpower.

This unpromising scenario – and exploding breasts are juvenile or hilarious depending on taste – is ushered in by the ironic (or is it?) baby announcement. President de Gaulle, the country’s new leader, said the same thing in a speech shortly after World War II, urging the French people to produce “12 million beautiful babies in 10 years.”

What might seem like an opera about gender transition as we know it several decades ahead of its time is actually nothing of the sort, and director Laurent Pelly, probably wisely, does nothing to push him in that direction. Written in the 1940s and based on an earlier play by surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire, The Breasts of Tiresias can most plausibly be described as a timely contribution to the broader question of gender relations in interwar France, even if its point of view is worryingly ambivalent.

Poulenc’s laid-back, melodious music is translated by Pelly and set designer Caroline Ginet into colorful vaudeville fun, and Elsa Benoit and Régis Mengus lead a fine, predominantly French-speaking cast under the effervescent direction of Robin Ticciati. There are some impressive stage shows, not just that of the 40,000 puppet babies, the front row turning out to be choir members. But the opportunity to explore contemporary debates about gender roles for a modern audience is largely missed.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac as Elle in La voix humaine (Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper)

Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Elle in La voix humaine (Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper)

Fortunately, the work with which it is paired, also by Poulenc, La voix humaine (based on a play by Jean Cocteau, recently adapted also for the West End stage by director Ivo van Hove, and for the screen by Pedro Almodóvar), offers a more penetrating treatment of a subject that hardly needs updating. The protagonist, Elle (She), suicidal depressed by the breakup of a relationship, spends 40 minutes on the phone, mostly talking to her ex-lover (when not dealing with crossed lines). Gradually and painfully she comes to recognize what she must have suspected: that he had abandoned her for another.

Poulenc’s laceratingly sensual score (admirably conducted by Ticciati) fills in the emotional turmoil that Elle struggles to disguise. Here she sprawls on a slab – hopefully this isn’t the bed mentioned in the stage instructions – whose occasional tilt vividly suggests the ups and downs of a depressive. Her psychological state is also evoked by a rosy horizontal band that appears when she remembers happier times, but is finally erased when the perception arises.

One can devise directorial touches further adding to the poignancy of the unfolding drama, but Pelly’s production serves well enough given Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s mesmerizing incarnation of the broken woman whose latest phone conversation we’re probably witnessing.

Glyndebourne, the 28th of August; glyndebourne. with

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