Tag Archives: Les Mamelles de Tiresias

All about sex at the RCM

1 Jul

The Royal College of Music’s summer show is a double bill of two French opera’s Chabrier’s Ene Education Manquée and Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias.  Lord knows when the Chabrier was last done here.  The Poulenc appeared at ENO and Opera North in the 1970s and ’80s but since then has been largely for students.  I saw it at the Guildhall in 2005 and can remember nothing about it.  I saw the first night of this show on 28 June.

It’s an imaginative pairing.  Both are very firmly about sex and making babies and, at first blush, at the lighter end of the French tradition.  It’s slightly surprising that they’re not paired more often – insofar as you’re likely to see either of them much.

I’m a Chabrier fan and Une Education Manquée on CD.   The impression I had was of a genial enough piece with nothing which really makes you sit up.

That was more or less confirmed by this performance.  It’s an amusing-ish jeux d’esprit.  Two young people have just got married but what you do when you’re left together afterwards and the husband’s pedantic tutor Pausanius is no help either.  Then a thunderstorm arrives and, as the lovers close, they learn what comes next naturally.  Chabrier’s music is jolly enough in his fairly typical vein – yearning romance and some lush harmonies, mixed with some Offenbach-ish speed.  The arias early on sound a bit generic but it livens up with some sparky duets towards the end.  The last three numbers are the best.

There’s a fair amount of dialogue which the RCM did in an alert translation by Stephen Unwin.  The arias were in French.  I longed for a Jeremy Sams-type translation of the whole thing which might have livened things up a bit and added some smut.  Unwin’s direction was reliable enough without doing much more than the obvious things.  The singers were decent.  I liked Juliet Lozano as Gontran – a rather lovely mezzo and a nice way of acting.  Rosanna Cooper as Helene didn’t convince me for a moment that she didn’t know about sex but, again, she displayed a nice mezzo.  Kieran Rayner is a bit young for Pausanius but he sang it well enough.  I can’t honestly say that this is more than a moderately enjoyable curiosity and I won’t be going out of my way to see it again.

I was rather enjoying the Poulenc until my partner pointed it out to me what an unpleasant piece it is: about the havoc created by women daring to want to have careers and not doing the good catholic thing of making babies.  The fact that it’s disguised in almost Monty Python-ish surrealism and some witty and very beguiling music actually makes the taste a bit nastier.

However, you can’t deny the wit and there are some rather funny situations and setting of language.  Unwin’s production was slick despite a few first night mishaps.  Men on roller skates are, by definition funny, as is a policeman on a bicycle.   I thought that he probably got the piece as right as you can. There were some good routines and you were never bored.

It was helped by a really splendid Therese/Tiresias from Harriet Eyley.  Here is a really lovely light voice in the Mady Mesplé mould, produced effortlessly and with a sense of style that was spot-on.  Buy shares now. Julien Van Mallaerts did a lovely job as the Husband – hilarious in his ghastly flowery frock and with a splendid command of the stage: a lovely warm personality and outstanding timing.  His voice went a bit awol at one point but otherwise, I thought this was a very promising performance.

Among the other roles, I enjoyed James Atkinson’s Gendarme, Benedict Hyman’s reporter and Stephen Mills’s scene stealing cameo as the Son. Kieron Rayner was back as the Theatre Director and delivered his opening scene with the right deadpan seriousness.  It felt as thought the hard-working cast was enjoying itself.

Michael Rosewell conducted.  He caught the romance and wit of the Chabrier and the lighter textures and contrasts of the Poulenc.  The orchestra was good.

It’s well worth a visit if you’re interested in this sort of thing.