- Les mamelles de Tirésias
"Les Mamelles de Tirésias" ("The Breasts of
Tiresias") is a surrealist two act "opéra bouffe" by Francis Poulenc, based on a text by Guillaume Apollinairewritten in 1903 but first performed in 1917. The opera premiered at the Opéra-Comiquein Parison 3 June 1947.
Poulenc first thought of setting "Les mamelles..." in the 1930s, and began composition in 1939, finishing five years later in 1944. He altered the setting of the opera from the real
African island of Zanzibarto an imaginary town called Zanzibar near Monte-Carlo(Apollinaire's childhood home) on the French Riviera. This latitude, he said, was "quite tropical enough for the Parisian that I am."
The opera closes with the stern command, "Ô Français, faites des enfants!" ("O Frenchmen, make babies!") and the success of this propaganda is seen in the fact that the first two sopranos cast in the role had to give it up before the premiere on account of pregnancy. Whether the work played a significant role in the post-war
baby boomhas not been determined.
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.
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, thanks to 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 (he gets better) and reveals herself as none other than Thérèse. The couple reconcile, and the whole cast gathers at the footlights to urge the audience:::
Seiji Ozawaconducting the Saito Kinen Orchestrawith Barbara Bonney, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, and Wolfgang Holzmair(1998, Philips)
"Includes Holzmair performing
Le Bal Masque"
Ed Spanjaardconducting the Nieuw Ensemblewith Renate Arends, Bernard Loonen, Mattijs Van de Woerdand Opera Trionfo(2003, Brillaint Classics)
*Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), "The Oxford Dictionary of Opera", 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
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