The anonymous appendages in Poulenc’s comic opera Les mamelles de Tirésias are deflated by their owner, Thérèse, when she announces that she is a feminist and wants to rule the country—or go to war. She grows a moustache, leaving her role as infant progenitor to be taken over by her husband, showing that anyone can do it, with a little ingenuity and willpower.
This somewhat unpromising scenario—and the exploding breasts are young or funny to taste—is introduced by the ironic announcement (or is it?) of the theater director in a prologue that the moral of the drama is that France must serve more babies. President de Gaulle, the country’s new leader, said much the same in a speech just after World War II, urging the French people to produce “12 million beautiful babies in 10 years.”
What might seem like a gender-transition opera as we know it decades ahead of its time is actually nothing of the sort, and director Laurent Pelly, probably wisely, does nothing to push it in that direction. Written in the 1940s and based on an earlier play by the surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire, The Breasts of Tiresias can more plausibly be described as a timely contribution to the wider question of gender relations in interwar France, although its point of view is worryingly ambivalent.
Poulenc’s relaxed, melodious music is translated by Pelly and set designer Caroline Ginet into an entertaining poster-colored vaudeville, and Elsa Benoit and Régis Mengus lead a fine, predominantly francophone cast under Robin Ticciati’s exuberant direction. There are some fantastic stage performances, not least by the over 40,000 baby dolls, where the front row turns out to be choir members. But the opportunity to take part in contemporary debates about gender roles for a modern audience largely passes by.
Fortunately, the work with which it is paired, also by Poulenc, La voix humaine (based on a play by Jean Cocteau, recently adapted for the West End stage by the director Ivo van Hove, and for the screen by Pedro Almodóvar), offers a more penetrating treatment of a topic that hardly needs updating. The main character, Elle (Hun), suicidally depressed by a relationship breakup, spends 40 minutes on the phone, mostly talking to her ex-boyfriend (when she’s not dealing with crossed lines). Gradually and painfully, she comes to recognize what she must have suspected: that he has left her for someone else.
Poulenc’s hauntingly sensual score (admirably conducted by Ticciati) fleshes out the emotional turmoil that Elle tries hard to hide. Here she sprawls on a slab – one hopes this is not the bed mentioned in the stage directions – whose occasional rocking neatly suggests the highs and lows of a depressive. Her psychological state is also evoked by a rose-colored horizontal stripe that appears when she remembers happier times, but is eventually obliterated as realization sets in.
One could imagine direction further enhancing the poignant drama unfolding, but Pelly’s production serves well enough, given Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s fascinating incarnation of the broken woman whose final phone call we are likely to witness.
Glyndebourne, until 28 August; glyndebourne.com