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Mamelles de Tirésias, Poulenc: LE GENDARME/LE DIRECTEUR

Les Mamelles de Tirésias

(The Breasts of Tiresias)

“The hero of the evening was Simon Keenlyside, whose incisive delivery of the Theatre Director’s Prologue underlined its status as one of the great passages in operatic literature.” Opera

Composer : Francis Poulenc
Librettist : Guillaume Apollinaire
Venue and Dates : Symphony Hall in Birmingham (Orchestra: City of Birmingham
Symphony Orchestra)
15th March 1995
Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (Orchestra: London Sinfonietta;
Sinfonietta chorus)
17th March 1995
Conductor :  Simon Rattle

Performers :
Therese : Barbara Bonney
La Marchande de Journeaux : Lucy Shelton
Le mari : Philip Langridge
Le gendarme / Le directeur : Simon Keenlyside
Presto : Christopher Purves
Lacouf / Le journaliste : Peter Hall
Le fils : Nigel Robson
Le monsieur barbu : Jeffrey Carls
Une grosse dame : Nancy Long

Notes :

Soundbites

John Allison, Opera, May 1995

Les Mamelles de Tirésias

London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 17

There were times when this performance seemed to be less about Poulenc, or even Thérèse’s Mamelles, than about the cloche hat Philip Langridge (as the Husband) donned for his contributions. His all-too-broad way with the comedy was typical of a performance in which sentimentality encroached on surrealism – a term that, as Jeremy Sams in New Grove Opera reminds us, Guillaume Appollinaire coined in his preface to the play on which Poulenc’s first opera is based. Langridge’s approach was endorsed, it appeared, by Simon Rattle,who revelled in the score a little too much; he drew fine playing from the London Sinfonietta, but the lush passages were positively ripe, and there was a shortage of that dry sophistication which underpins all Poulenc’s music. (Like all masterpieces, Mamelles can inspire many interpretations, but in comparison with the “classic” André Cluytens-Denise Duval recording, there was little idiomatic spirit here.) The tone of the performance was not helped by Mary Jones’s specially commissioned surtitles, which turned lines like “brandade et aïoli” into “fish and chips”.

Which is not to suggest that this concert gave no pleasure – how can this brillant work fail to charm ? It was an inspired piece of programming in Rattle’s exploration of the ‘40s (this year’s chunk of his on-going ‘Towards the Millennium’ festival), all the more effective for being placed in the context of other musical responses to the horrors that decade brought. It was not hard to see how some of the French, just emerging from the nightmare of war, thought the frivolity of the work in bad taste, but underneath the highjinks of Thérèse changing sex with her husband and leaving him to have 40,000 children, the serious message was, of course, of the need to repopulate France.

Rattle marshalled a starry cast, but then, inexplicably, hid it between the orchestra and the alert Sinfonietta chorus. Barbara Bonney was by turns cool and cheeky in the title role, and projected her lines to perfection, and Langridge – for all his over-acting- sang strongly. Nigel Robson (the Son) was also bitten by the knockabout bug, but Lucy Shelton (heard at the beginning of the evening as the flexible soloist in Boulez’s Le Soleil des eaux) supplied a corrective in her few lines as the Newspaper Vendor. The hero of the evening was Simon Keenlyside, whose incisive delivery of the Theatre Director’s Prologue underlined its status as one of the great passages in operatic literature.

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