While the last performances of Robert Carsen’s Dialogues des carmélites are taking place on its main stage, Dutch National Opera has programmed four performances of Poulenc’s first opera, Les mamelles de Tirésias, in its rehearsal studio, as part of the company’s talent development programme. This is a great occasion to witness a much lighter side of the French composer, who was famously described by friend and critic Claude Rostand as “mi moine, mi voyou” (half monk, half rascal). The exuberant staging by Ted Huffman, the commitment of the team of young singers and the luxurious accompaniment by Roger Vignoles and Edwige Herchenroder (the work is given in its version for two pianos arranged in 1958 by Benjamin Britten) combine into an enjoyable, fun-packed evening.

<i>Les Mamelles de Tirésias</i> © Hans van den Bogaard
Les Mamelles de Tirésias
© Hans van den Bogaard

Written at the end of World War II and first performed in 1947, Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias) is a short opéra bouffe based on the eponymous surrealist play by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire created 30 years earlier. The story goes as follows: in the imaginary city of Zanzibar, Thérèse has had enough of submitting to the authority of men, and that of her husband’s in particular. She declares that she wants to be a physician, minister or soldier and she refuses to have children. She frees herself by letting go of her breasts, grows a beard and leaves her husband. As General Tirésias, she starts a successful campaign against child birth. Her husband, worried that the country will be sterile, vows to find a way to bear children without women. He is successful and manages by himself to give birth to 49,049 babies in one single day. Throughout the story, the public makes the acquaintance of an absurd crowd of characters that includes a frisky gendarme, a fat lady, a Parisian journalist and two resurrected drunkards. Eventually, Thérèse and her husband are reunited. The underlying serious message of this comical piece is the need to make children to repopulate a country decimated by war. This natalist message is totally outdated, the recurrent themes of gender-bending and sex change sounds strangely modern.

Drew Santini (Husband) and Hrafnhildur Adnadóttir (Thérèse) © Hans van den Bogaard
Drew Santini (Husband) and Hrafnhildur Adnadóttir (Thérèse)
© Hans van den Bogaard

Director Ted Huffman places the action in a single set, that of a classic French café, complete with black and white tile floor, globe pendant lights and a long oak-panelled bar that revolves as the scenes change. This handsome café interior and the elegant late-Forties costumes (both by Samal Blak) are those of an idealized post-war Paris. The dynamic and intricate choreography (by Zack Winokur) is reminiscent of MGM musical comedies of the Fifties, with witty allusions to Singin’ in the rain or An American in Paris.

The 12 members of the young cast catch with admirable gusto everything the director and choreographer have thrown at them, and it is a lot: this colourful crowd of Zanzibar sings, acts, dances, runs, jumps and somersaults in a non-stop ballet, to the rhythm of the refined piano music, played exquisitely by Roger Vignoles and Edwige Herchenroder. 

Hrafnhildur Arnadóttir (Thérèse) © Hans van den Bogaard
Hrafnhildur Arnadóttir (Thérèse)
© Hans van den Bogaard

The cast is dominated by baritone Drew Santini who gives a praiseworthy performance as Le mari (Thérèse’s nameless husband). The young Canadian possesses a warm and appealing baritone. His command of the French diction is impressive and allows him to make use of the text with much finesse. The surrealist poetry of the libretto means Les mamelles de Tirésias is a wordy opera, and such finesse with the text is invaluable. Hrafnhildur Árnadóttir is a gorgeous and fiery Thérèse/Tirésias. Her soprano sounds ample with, to my taste, too much vibrato for this particular type of repertoire, and at times a hint of shrillness at the top. Of the smaller roles, I particularly liked Pierre Derhet’s journalist and the pair of drunkards, Monsieur Lacouf (Olivier Trommenschlager) and Monsieur Presto (Rubèn Plantiga).