A programme of the choral society chestnut that is Fauré’s Requiem along with Poulenc’s lively comic opera Les mamelles de Tirésias looked like an intriguing combination on paper: on the one hand, an intimate mass for the dead, on the other a surrealist comic opera about boobs and exceedingly effective child-rearing. While the two pieces are not without their similarities, with ear-catching melodies and an essentially positive outlook, the contrast proved perhaps too great on Saturday’s concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the BBC Singers led by Ludovic Morlot.

Hélène Guilmette © Julien Faugère
Hélène Guilmette
© Julien Faugère

Fauré’s Requiem might lack the drama and visceral punch of the requiems of Verdi and Mozart. A piece of quiet contemplation, it is an intimate celebration of a soul passing on to heaven. Aside from some suspect intonation in the horns at the very beginning, the orchestral playing was solid throughout. The violas shone on top of a wonderfully burnished lower string section, playing with a wonderful sense of line in the more contrapuntal movements, especially in the second movement Offertoire.

The BBC Symphony Chorus was not on top form, lacking an overall sense of legato and line. This was especially apparent in the two big solo tenor moments, which were also marred by some very puzzling vowel modifications. Tempi were on the slow side, too slow at times, especially the Dies illa section of the Libera me. Despite some outstanding horn playing, there was no drama to this most dramatic section of the piece and the chorus failed to hold the intensity throughout. Soloists Hélène Guilmette and Jean-François Lapointe both sang well, although Guilmette had a tendency of drifting slightly flat towards the end of phrases. Lapointe’s ringing top made for an exciting Hostias, but his lower notes were rather underpowered, making him disappear into the orchestra during the Libera me.

Poulenc’s 1947 comic opera Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tirésias) was his first successful attempt at an opera. It was to mark his first meeting with the soprano Denise Duval, who sang the main role of Thérèse/Tirésias. She would later go on to create the roles of Blanche in Dialogues de carmélites and Elle in La voix humaine. The opera is based on a 1917 play with the same name by Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the first forays into surrealist drama.

Les mamelles de Tirésias is set in Zanzibar, not the island off the coast of Tanzania, but a fictional village on the French Riviera, not far from Monte Carlo. The main character, Thérèse is tired of cooking and making babies, and decides to become a man; Tirésias. She grows a beard, and her breasts float off in the form of two balloons. She leaves her husband to become a general and convinces the women of Zanzibar not to have any more children. Her husband takes matters into his own hands and somehow manages to give birth to 40,049 in a single day, all without any female intervention! Not only that: they all have successful careers in the arts! The opera ends with a plea to the audience to make children, surely a resonant message for an audience that had just gone through the terrors of World War II.

Hélène Guilmette returned to give a wonderfully characterised, not to mention outrageously funny performance as Thérèse/Tirésias. She showed in her opening monologue a great attention to the text and a considerable comic talent, although she did occasionally sound a bit underpowered. Guilmette was the only singer who sang without the aid of a score, leaving her free to interact with the other singers and even the conductor. As her husband, Jean-François Lapointe especially shone in Act II, telling Thomas Morris’ Journalist about his 49,049 new children, and his delight over the extortionate nature of child number 49,050. His ringing baritone and excellent diction proved a good fit for the role, even though he was a tad too dependent of his score. Ivan Ludlow and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt were both delightful in the roles of the two drunks Presto and Lacouf. The BBC Singers made the most out of the chorus part, complete with delighted screams of “Papa!” from bonnet-clad chorus members. The orchestra brought out the multitude of colours that makes up Poulenc’s wind-heavy orchestration. Morlot’s tempi were on the fast side, fitting for this very fast-paced opera. Still, I would have liked some more contrast, especially in the first act with its reliance on dance rhythms.

Programming the sacred and the profane at the same concert can be an interesting experiment. The two pieces of Saturday’s concert did sound like an interesting concept, but ultimately fell flat. Still, the performances of the individual pieces, especially the Poulenc, were good. Judging by the hearty laughs of the audience, I doubt I was the only one to leave the Barbican with a huge smile on my face.