Francis Poulenc, Les mamelles de Tirésias
Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Villa Ephrussi-Rothschild, 24 August 2018
Baby boom in the French Riviera
“Quelque part entre Monaco et Nice” (Somewhere between Monaco and Nice) writes Poulenc on the score of Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias). Then, why not the stately pink villa that stands on top of the Cap Ferrat peninsula, halfway between the two sea resorts of the French Riviera?
The main hall, a sort of covered cloister in the building that belonged to Beatrice de Rothschild and the baron Maurice de Ephrussi, hosts the final performance of Azuriales Opera, devoted to “les talents de demain” (tomorrow’s talented artists), ten young singers who engaged in a singing competition and in two masterclasses before performing in Francis Poulenc’s first opera under Bryan Evans’ musical direction and in Alessandro Talevi’s staging.
The task of expressing Poulenc’s shining orchestration through the piano keys is brilliantly won by Bryan Evans: if not the timbres of the individual instruments, the colours and the fizzy and mellow themes of this surreal musical work are effectively rendered in the hands of the director and owner of Diva Opera, an English company that since 1997 presents works in chamber form. His experience is evident in the effectual conducting of the voices, for example in the final of the first act with that vocal quintet punctuated by the caustic comments of the “people of Zanzibar” or in the numerous animated scenes of this opera bouffe.
The title choice is well suited: eleven roles in which young performers can display their vocal skills and put their stage performances to the test. They have all passed a rigorous trial and possess a fairly good vocal quality. Maybe some voices have a dash of unripeness, while others are already prompt for even more demanding debuts. Here are all their names: Eliza Boom, soprano from New Zealand (Thérèse/Tirésias); Glenn Cunningham, tenor, United Kingdom (Lacouf); Lawrence Halksworth, baritone, United Kingdom (gendarme); Elmira Karakhanove, soprano, Russia (fortune-teller); Satrya Krisna, tenor, Indonesia (husband); Thembinkosi Magagula, soprano, South Africa (newsagent); Ema Nikolovska, mezzo-soprano, Macedonia (journalist); Chuma Sijeda, baritone, South Africa (Presto); Katie Stevenson, mezzo-soprano, United Kingdom (prologue, fat woman); Igor Yadrov, bass, Russia (bearded gentleman). No one is French-speaking, but the linguistic subtleties are well assimilated and satisfactorily delivered while the commitment is shared in equal measure. Perhaps it is in the women’s department that the most interesting voices can be found: one cannot but underline the vocal flair of Thérèse, the beautiful colour of the mezzo that lends her voice to the prologue and the nonchalant rendition of the fortune teller.
If the task of the musical director is not easy, that of Alessandro Talevi is equally difficult: he must employ his dramaturgical skills in an environment that is not very suitable to a stage performance. It is not the first time that the young director born in Johannesburg deals with such an exploit: the experience he made in this same location with Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (which won him the European Opera-directing Prize in 2007) and Partenope in 2008, led to last night euphoric reaction.
With props limited to a few chairs, a small table and an ironing board (which also served as a delivery table for the forty thousand forty-nine newborns, not one more, not one less), the beaming outcome was achieved through the director’s expertise and the performers’ skill that made this surreal plot fully enjoyable. Apollinaire’s text was up to date in 1917 as well as thirty years later, at the debut of Poulenc’s opera, as it is now when humans, in some countries, are reluctant to generate children and where feminist demands are anything but resolved. The finale does not use metaphors to encourage the people, French or otherwise, to procreate: «Cher public, faites des enfants, | vous qui n’en faisiez guère, | vous qui n’en faisiez plus!» (Dear audience, make babies! You who scarcely have any, you who no longer make them!) and the gestures of the performers on stage, properly coupled after the confusion of sexes and roles that took place previously, leaves no doubt. And who knows, perhaps someone from the public, after the elegant dinner under the trees of Villa Ephrussi-Rothschild gardens following the performance, did comply with the inducement after returning home…
photo © Les Azuriales Opéra 2018