Les mamelles de Tirésias

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Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias) is a surrealist opéra bouffe by Francis Poulenc, in a prologue and two acts based on the play of the same title by Guillaume Apollinaire, which was written in 1903 and first performed in 1917.

Although the action of the opera is farcical, it contains a serious message: the need to rediscover and repopulate a country ravaged by war.


Background[edit]

Guillaume Apollinaire was one a group of poets whom Poulenc had met as a teenager. Adrienne Monnier's bookshop, the Maison des Amis des Livres, was a meeting place for avant-garde writers including Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon.[1] Apollinaire, the illegitimate son of a Polish noblewoman; is described by the critic Edward Lockspeiser as the prominent leader of Bohemian life in Montparnasse.[2] Among his achievements were to bring to prominence the painter the Douanier Rousseau,[2] and to invent the term "surrealism", of which he was a leading exponent.[3] In June 1917 the audience for the first performance of Apollinaire's "drame surréaliste", Les Mamelles de Tirésias at a theatre in Montmartre included Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, Léonide Massine, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, and the young Poulenc.[4] Many years later Poulenc said that though he had been immensely amused by the farcical piece but did not occur to him at the time that he would ever set it to music.[4]

Poulenc first set Apollinaire's words to music in his 1919 song cycle La Bestiaire, and returned to the poet's work for the choral work Sept chansons (1936).[5] During the 1930s he first thought of setting Les mamelles de Tirésias as an opera; in 1935 he adapted the script as a libretto, with the blessing of Apollinaire's widow,[6] and began sketching the music in 1939, with most of the composition done in a burst of creativity between May and October 1944. Although the play was written in 1903, by the time of its premiere, France was in the thick of the First World War, and Apollinaire had revised the piece, adding a sombre prologue. Poulenc aimed to reflect both the farcical and the serious aspects of the play. The critic Jeremy Sams describes the opera as "high-spirited topsy-turveydom" concealing "a deeper and sadder theme – the need to repopulate and rediscover a France ravaged by war."[7]

With Mme Apollinaire's approval, Poulenc changed the date and setting from those of the original. "I chose 1912 because that was Apollinaire's heroic period, of the first fights for Cubism ... I substituted Monte-Carlo for Zanzibar to avoid the exotic, and because Monte-Carlo, which I adore, and where Apollinaire spent the first 15 years of his life, is quite tropical enough for the Parisian that I am."[6]

Kaminski writes that the music, while in the line of Offenbach, Chabrier and Ravel's L'Heure espagnole, impresses the listener with its stream of "miniatures and vignettes", dances (a valse for Thérèse, a polka for Lacouf and Presto) and pastiches from other lyric music such as ariettes in the style of opéra comique or chorales (after the duel).[8]

Performance history[edit]

The opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 June 1947 with costumes and décor by Erté. Poulenc recalled, "The ravishing sets Erté designed for the Opera-Comique with, in the Finale, those lamps in the style of a 1914 restaurant car, were exactly what I was after. As for the ladies' clothes, they were exact copies of the dresses (what at the time were called 'toilettes') that Erté had designed for Poiret's 1912 collection."[6]

The opera was revived in Paris in 1972, followed by Lille in 1985 and Saint-Étienne in 1989. Outside France it was seen in Massachusetts in 1953, Basle in 1957, and at Aldeburgh in 1958 in an arrangement by the composer for two pianos. Further local premieres took place in Philadelphia in 1959, New York in 1960, Milan in 1963, London in 1979, Düsseldorf in 1982 and Tokyo in 1985.[8]

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, June 3, 1947[9]
(Conductor: Albert Wolff)
Theatre director baritone Robert Jeantet
Thérèse/Tirésias soprano Denise Duval
Her husband baritone Paul Payen
Monsieur Lacouf tenor Alban Derroja
Monsieur Presto baritone Marcel Enot
A gendarme baritone Émile Rousseau
A newspaper vendor mezzo-soprano Jane Atty
A reporter from Paris tenor Serge Rallier
The son baritone Jacques Hivert
An elegant lady mezzo-soprano Irène Gromova
A woman mezzo-soprano Yvonne Girard-Ducy
A bearded gentleman bass Gabriel Jullia
Chorus of People of Zanzibar

Synopsis[edit]

In a short prologue, the theatre director introduces the work, promising the audience a moral piece on the necessity of having children.

Act 1[edit]

Thérèse tires of her life as a submissive woman and becomes the male Tirésias when her breasts turn into balloons and float away. Her husband is not pleased by this, still less so when she ties him up and dresses him as a woman.

Meanwhile, a pair of drunken gamblers called Presto and Lacouf affectionately shoot one another and are mourned by the assembled townspeople. Thérèse marches off to conquer the world as General Tiresias, leaving her captive husband to the attentions of the local gendarme, who is fooled by his female attire.

Off-stage, General Tiresias starts a successful campaign against childbirth and is hailed by the populace. Fearful that France will be left sterile if women give up sex, the husband vows to find a way to bear children without women. Lacouf and Presto return from the dead and express both interest and scepticism.

Act 2[edit]

The curtain rises to cries of "Papa!" The husband's project has been a spectacular success, and he has given birth to 40,049 children in a single day. A visiting Parisian journalist asks how he can afford to feed the brood, but the husband explains that the children have all been very successful in careers in the arts, and have made him a rich man with their earnings. After chasing the journalist off, the husband decides to raise a journalist of his own, but is not completely pleased with the results.

The gendarme now arrives to report that, because of overpopulation, the citizens of Zanzibar are all dying of hunger. The husband suggests getting ration cards printed by a tarot-reading fortune-teller. Just such a fortune-teller immediately appears, looking rather familiar under her mask.

The fortune-teller prophesies that the fertile husband will be a multi-millionaire, but that the sterile gendarme will die in abject poverty. Incensed, the gendarme attempts to arrest her, but she strangles him and reveals herself as none other than Thérèse. The couple reconcile, and the whole cast gathers at the footlights to urge the audience:

Ecoutez, ô Français, les leçons de la guerre
Et faites des enfants, vous qui n'en faisiez guère
Cher public: faites des enfants!
Heed, o Frenchmen, the lessons of the war
And make babies, you who hardly ever make them!
Dear audience: Make babies!

Recordings[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Poulenc (1978), p. 98
  2. ^ a b Hell, p. xv
  3. ^ Bohn, Willard. "From Surrealism to Surrealism: Apollinaire and Breton", The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Winter, 1977), pp. 197–210
  4. ^ a b Schmidt, p. 49
  5. ^ Hell, pp. 93 and 98
  6. ^ a b c Poulenc (2014), p. 255
  7. ^ Sams. p. 282
  8. ^ a b Kaminski, pp. 1153–1155
  9. ^ Wolff, Stéphane. Un demi-siècle d'Opéra-Comique (1900-1950). Paris: André Bonne, 1953. p113.

References[edit]

  • Hell, Henri; Edward Lockspeiser (trans) (1959). Francis Poulenc. New York: Grove Press. OCLC 1268174. 
  • Kaminski, Piotr (2003). "Francis Poulenc: Les Mamelles de Tirésias". Mille et Un Opéras. Paris: Fayard. ISBN 978-2-213-60017-8. 
  • Poulenc, Francis; Stéphane Audel (ed); James Harding (trans) (1978). My Friends and Myself. London: Dennis Dobson. ISBN 978-0-234-77251-5. 
  • Poulenc, Francis; Nicolas Southon (ed); Roger Nichols (trans) (2014). Articles and Interviews – Notes from the Heart. Burlington, US: Ashgate. ISBN 978-1-4094-6622-2. 
  • Sams, Jeremy (1997) [1993]. "Poulenc, Francis". In Amanda Holden (ed). The Penguin Opera Guide. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-051385-1. 
  • Schmidt, Carl B (2001). Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press. ISBN 978-1-57647-026-8.