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Les Larmes du Couteau & Les Mamelles de Tirésias
LONG BEACH, CA
Long Beach Opera
Long Beach Opera's second production of the season offered the opportunity to hear two seldom-performed Surrealist operas on a double bill in the intimate confines of the Center Theater (seen Mar. 11). "Leave your rational thinking at the door," the company's artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, told the audience before launching into the show. It seemed good advice. It was probably best just to sit back and allow Bohuslav Martinů's 1928 Tears of a Knife (aka Les Larmes du Couteau) and Francis Poulenc's 1947 The Breasts of Tiresias (Les Mamelles de Tirésias) to entertain you, rather than try to make sense of them.
Martinů's short one-actor tells the story of a young woman, Eleonore, who falls in love with the corpse of a hanged man. Her mother wants her to marry another man, a neighbor with the name of Satan. He woos Eleonore insistently; she remains attracted to the hanged man despite his inability to communicate. Eventually she commits suicide and is united in apparent bliss with the hanged man, but he is not who she thought he was.
Martinů's score, written in Paris and intended for the contemporary-music festival in Baden-Baden but not performed until 1969, is a gritty jazz-age concoction, part music hall, part avant-garde. Its libretto is by the Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. The strongest musical influences appear to be Les Six and Stravinsky's Les Noces. The small orchestra calls for banjo and saxophone, with strings, winds and brass. There is a foxtrot-like love duet, a tango-ish number, a Kurt Weill-esque aria, but a good deal of the time the singers sing in an anti-lyrical, dehumanized style. Dissonance is used freely.
At this late date, Tears seems more a curiosity than anything else. It does offer a challenging technical workout for the lead soprano, however, which company favorite Ani Maldjian dashed off with acrobatic skill and point. Baritone Robin Buck made a suitably sleazy Satan, and Suzan Hanson played the mother effectively. The production was rudimentary (the antics were to come), with a ladder, platform and noose hanging to the right (Roberto Perlas Gomez played the mute hanged man), a chair and table. A group of wanderers came and went in black party hats. Two beautiful roses on a screen above the stage slowly wilted as the opera progressed. The orchestra performed behind a scrim at the rear of the stage.
For The Breasts of Tiresias the scene was enlivened and crowded considerably. The opera unfolded as a kind of Surrealist circus, complete with an actor watching a slideshow, card players, balloons, dancers (sometimes mimicking copulating poses) and singers and choir extending the action into the audience. Colorful costumes, lots and lots of babies and quick movements added to the hectic impression. A beleaguered housewife, Theresa, suddenly becomes relieved of her cares when her breasts (balloons) float away. Her husband puts on feminine attire and promptly has 40,000 babies. Random personages enter, sing and exit, in one absurd number after another, part Marx Brothers, pure Poulenc in his most frivolous mode.
Both operas were sung in English, with English supertitles. The dash of the Poulenc seemed a bit weighed down in English. Maldjian (Tiresias) and Buck (Husband, in a hilariously ridiculous housedress) gave winning performances, and Gomez was impressive as the Theatre Director and Gendarme. Mitisek conducted the orchestra in both works with unassuming efficiency. In all, it proved an entertaining afternoon without a huge impact, which is just about what the composers must have envisioned.
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