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"Mamelles de Tiresias" Serio-Comic Business

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 9, 2009 - 10:27:52 PM in reviews_2009

(first published in The Cincinnati Enquirer November 8, 2009)

Tenor Thomas Gunther (center) as the Husband in Poulenc's "Mamelles de Tiresias" at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (photo by Steven Goldstein)
The final admonishment - "Dear audience, make babies" - of Francis Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tiresias (The Breasts of Tiresias) has a comic punch indeed.

In 1947 France, it was serious counsel, too, since the French population needed re-stocking after two world wars.

Whether Poulenc's frothy 55-minute opera, with libretto by Guillaume Apollinaire, contributed to France's post-war baby boom is not documented, but judging from the youthful exuberance of Friday night's Opera Studio performance at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, it well might have.

The 18-member student cast kept the audience in Patricia Corbett Theater in stitches, every gesture and vocal inflection calculated to raise oxytocin levels, as well as tickle the funny bone.

Directed by CCM opera department chair Robin Guarino, the production was semi-staged. Aided by costumes and a few well-chosen props (chamber pot, megaphone, gas can, baby bottles) the singers made it vivid with their voices and acting skills. They enhanced each other's performances with mimed accompaniments. They became a chorus line with kicks Offenbach-style, and their patter singing, in French, was pretty impressive, too.

The 40-piece CCM Philharmonia Orchestra, led skillfully by Karl Shymanovitz, performed at the rear of the stage, practically unseen behind a long row of chairs for the cast.

Mamelles de Tiresias, called surreal by Apollinaire himself, who coined the word for his 1903 play of the same name, is completely absurd. It is set in Zanzibar -- a town on the French Riviera, not the island off the coast of Africa, as in the play. Therese, a fed-up housewife, declares her freedom and turns into Tiresias (a man). A pair of drunken gamblers shoot each other amicably (returning to life later). Cheered on by the Zanzibarians, Therese dresses her husband as a woman and departs on manly pursuits. A Gendarme arrives to investigate the gamblers' deaths and ogles the husband. The husband leaves and returns with 40,049 babies he has made all by himself. A visiting journalist assumes he must be very rich to afford such a family. Au contraire, he says, they are already supporting me. The Gendarme asks how he will feed them. Ration cards, he replies, to be obtained from a fortune teller who turns out to be Therese in disguise. She unmasks and declares, "I must love or I will die." Reconciled, she and her husband embrace and, joined by the townspeople, adjure everyone to "make babies."

The opera's serio-comic nature was most apparent in the prologue, which verges on grand opera at times. Cast members sat frozen in comic poses while baritone Paul Scholten, as the theater director, explained the urgent message of the opera and the improbable form it will take. Typically, Poulenc's music evokes the cabaret and the ironic flavor of Stravinsky and Eric Satie.
The cast sprang to life after the prologue, with motley characters filling the stage. Soprano Amita Prakash asserted herself immediately in Therese's "Non monsieur mon mari" ("No, my lord and master") which she delivered with verve, sprouting a pair of red balloons (her "mamelles") and popping them with a pocket knife.

Thomas Gunther, as her husband, displayed a fine tenor and more, disrobing onstage to be dressed as a woman, then back to a man in act II. Tenor Andrew Penning and baritone Elliott Brown were a hoot as the gamblers Lacouf and Presto (Penning as Harpo Marx). Baritone David Swain as the Gendarme romanced the husband convincingly in act I, and tenor Andrew King sang offstage for indisposed Jesse Ragland, who nevertheless acted the journalist onstage with relish. Tenor Ian Ramirez, one of the husband's mass-produced babies, handled his man-sized role nimbly.

The evening opened with songs by Poulenc on texts by Apollinaire, stylishly sung by soprano Jessica Jacobs, mezzo-soprano Caitlin Mathes and baritone Scholten, with stage direction by Amanda Consol. Shymanovitz accompanied sensitively on piano.

The program, finale of CCM's "Fete Francaise," repeats in French with surtitles at 8 p.m. tonight, 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Patricia Corbett Theater at CCM.