Overall this was a delightful evening that left you wanting to hear the Poulenc again very soon. So much delightful detail was packed into the brief hour of its duration that you can only lament the run is not longer and with a transfer to follow, for example to Edinburgh, where this sort of comic opera will always succeed when performed with this degree of brio and skill.

PoulencIn recent years the seasonal productions at the Guildhall School and Royal College of Music have done a great deal not just for their students, but for the cause of opera in London. By programming unfamiliar and rarely performed repertory, often in a double bill of contrasting moods, they not only give a plethora of opportunities for their singers, players and creatives to learn the craft, but also broaden the palette available for the regular opera goer, with performances of a quality that often put the professional opera houses in a certain shade.

This is mainly the case here where an outstanding seventieth-anniversary performance of Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias) is paired with an average production of a minor work by Chabrier, Une éducation manqué (An Incomplete Education). The latter is the shorter work of the two and acts as a slightly stodgy appetizer to the main bill of fare, on which one feels the bulk of the director’s attention has focused. There are parallel casts and therefore only the press night performers are reviewed here.

Right from the beginning of the evening though, one knows that it will be a musical event of entire security. The serene clear horn solo that floats above the opening of the overture to the Chabrier was only the first of many delectable instrumental moments in two demanding and highly colourful orchestral scores. The Royal College orchestra was on fine form throughout under Michael Rosewell’s firm yet supple direction, and both these operas are well suited to the intimate acoustic of the Britten theatre.

The Chabrier piece is essentially a three-hander, originally set in the eighteenth century, and here brought forward by a hundred years. It is a case of much-ado-about not-very-much but sent spinning along its way with some charmingly decorative music and a good number of characterful arias for each of the three singers involved.

PoulencAgainst the backdrop of a sombre country house interior with a window embrasure flanked by two doors, a newly-married couple, play out a somewhat contrived plot in which they seek help in working out what to do to develop their relationship.

The assumption is that Hélène (Elizabeth Reeves) and Gontran (Amy Manford) have spent little time together before marriage and are innocent in ways of the world. They appeal respectively to an aunt and to Pausanias, Gontran’s former tutor (Julien van Mellaerts), for guidance, but receive nothing of any use to them. Eventually a thunderstorm promotes a desire for mutual comfort and the problem, if it ever existed, solves itself.

If the message is that no one can tell you about sex or romance – you have to work out the rules for yourselves – then any work of art that treads too heavily on the theme is going to overstay its welcome. Tristan and Isolde this is not! While there is rather too much tiresome and lame dialogue, fortunately Chabrier’s music is catchy and varied, in the same winning style that anticipates L’Etoile.

The comic material for Pausanias is especially fine, including a witty ‘list’ song that deserves to be heard more often alongside the better known ‘G&S’ examples. There is also an infectious ‘kissing-game’ waltz which takes over the later sections to good effect.

PoulencThe performers took some time to warm up and the production was rather more static than it needed to be: social gaucheness does not imply a need for awkward acting. But Van Mellaerts lightened the tone delightfully, and towards the end both Reeves and Manford relaxed into their roles and showed us what they were capable of vocally.

As the second half began you knew immediately from the delicious, slinky, smoochy and perfumed orchestral harmonies billowing up from the pit that you were in the unmistakable world of Francis Poulenc. This first opera of his, adapted by the composer from a surrealist play of Apollinaire, has been overshadowed in recent years by the success and contemporary resonance of Dialogues of the Carmelites, but in many ways it is more representative of his whole contradictory artistic temperament.

While there is a serious theme running through it – namely whether the propagation of children promotes wealth of poverty – the bizarre succession of scenes presents a cast of zany diversity and moods that zig-zag between satire, sentimentality, vulgarity and absurdity.

Genders are bent into new shapes, the laws of conception are defied, authority is mocked, family models reinvented, with a delightful sense of fun that gives the composer full rein to experiment with different musical forms and create a vast array of characters all sketched in lightly but memorably with melodies alternately ardent and brilliant.

PoulencAt the heart of the action is a failed marriage between Thérèse/Tirésias who reinvents herself as a man and putative dictator, and her husband who becomes a devotee of the propagation of the nation through having babies. Just as her breasts float away as a couple of balloons so he becomes able to father 40,049 children in one day, as a contribution to France’s national recovery after World War Two.

Alongside these two leads, gamblers quarrel, a gendarme loses all self-respect, and order begins to break down in the imaginary Riviera city of Zanzibar where the action is ostensibly located. Eventually a point of repose and reconciliation and gender reversal is found and all join in a chorus celebrating procreation.

What stands out in this production is just how much everyone is clearly enjoying themselves. Such a bizarre yet tuneful work offers great scope for character acting and singing akin to Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. It is an apt choice for a music academy where many need to be found roles.

Director Stephen Unwin has great fun filling his stage with characters on bicycles and roller-skates, and the wardrobe department have a ball too – the drag outfit for the husband would have made Dame Edna proud! Only the lighting sequences were occasionally unsatisfactory in not always finding the correct alignment and keeping pace with the flurry of action.

PoulencIn a cast that had no weak links at all Louise Fuller and Kieran Rayner stood out in the leads. These are not long roles but they are technically very demanding, quite apart from the need to coordinate vocal bravura with considerable acting skills. In these respects they were outstanding and full of the required panache.

Overall this was a delightful evening that left you wanting to hear the Poulenc again very soon. So much delightful detail was packed into the brief hour of its duration that you can only lament the run is not longer and with a transfer to follow, for example to Edinburgh, where this sort of comic opera will always succeed when performed with this degree of brio and skill.

Chabrier and Poulenc Double Bill
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…