Portland State University Opera ventured into the realm of opéra bouffe (French operetta) with a rousing performance of Francis Poulenc’s “Les Mamelles de Tirésias” (“The Breasts of Tiresias”) on December 8 at the Lincoln Studio Theater. Now before you start thinking that this production was some sort of strip show, you should know that the work was based on a play of the same name by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who coined the term “surreal” to describe it. The story takes place in the town of Zanzibar where Thérèse, bored of being a woman, decides change her sex. Her breasts (two balloons) float away while she sings a waltz to them, and then she leaves town. Her husband, assuming that she has been abducted, responds by wearing her clothing. He then becomes the paterfamilias to a ridiculously large horde, giving birth single-handedly to thousands of children in 24 hours. Thérèse, alias Tiresias returns to town as a fortuneteller and reunites with her husband. In the meantime, things happen to other characters that are absurdly entertaining.
The other big factor affecting “Les Mamelles de Tirésias” was WWII, which had taken a great toll on France’s population. Poulenc finished writing the work in 1944, and its main message is to go out and make babies. So, despite the comic and nonsensical goings on, the underlying theme has a seriousness that must have caused a lot of head-nodding in the audience when it was premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1947.
Directed by Rebecca Hermann, a strong cast of singers tackled “Les Mamelles de Tirésias” with enthusiasm that seemed a bit overstressed at times. Maeve Stier, as the Theater Director, got things off to an excellent start with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes as she exhorted the audience to “make babies now as never before.” Savannah Panah’s Thérèse generated laughter when she released her balloons while serenading them with a waltz and then followed it with “I feel masculine.” The vignette involving Monsieur Lacouf (Ben Trombi) and Monsieur Presto (Eric Olson), who kill each other (using balloon guns) over roulette was oddly amusing. Their physical agility was matched by Erik Standifird as the Husband, who applied his stentorian high baritone to great effect. He counted on some of his many children to support him in his old age, including the Son (Nicholas Wavers), who skillfully cleared many high notes with an impressive falsetto. A gendarme (Jonny Roberts), newspaper vendor (Lydia O’Brien), and reporter (Kate Ledington) rounded out the principals with spirited singing and lots of movement.
Since the Lincoln Studio Theater does not have an orchestra pit, Chuck Dillard conducted while seated in the front row. Pianist James Pick provided expert accompaniment and gamely wore a baby’s cap in the second act. A large babe crib, festooned with pink and blue balloons, plus a table and a couple of chairs were all of the props that the singers needed. Poulenc’s music skipped from waltzes to polkas and other styles that are part and parcel of French comic operettas – yet he made them his own, and they were thoroughly delightful right up to the last admonition: “You must make babies now as you never have before!”