OP3193. LES MAMELLES DE TIRESIAS (Poulenc), recorded 1953, w. Cluytens Cond. l'Opéra-Comique Ensemble; Denise Duval, Jean Giraudeau, Émile Rousseau, Robert Jeantet, Julien Thirache, Frédéric Leprin, Serge Rallier, Jacques Hivert, Gilbert Jullia & Marguerite Legouhy; PAILLE d'AVOINE (Planquette), broadcast performance, 21 Jan., 1957, w.Cariven Cond. Denise Duval, Jean Giraudeau & Joseph Peyron. (France) Malibran 796. - 7600003777973
“Poulenc conceived of LES MAMELLES as a diversion from his serious works of the war, notably the choral masterpiece LA FIGURE HUMAINE. For the opera, he returned to one of his earliest literary heroes, Guillaume Apollinaire, who exercised the greatest influence over the composer immediately following the First World War. Poulenc's music returns to his ‘bright’ Satiean idiom of the Twenties.
Poulenc wrote all three of his operas – LES MAMELLES, DIALOGUES DES CARMÉLITES, and LA VOIX HUMAINE – for the remarkable Denise Duval, a singing actress of great range, who got her start at the Folies-Bergère. MAMELLES takes advantage of that aspect of her art. It's essentially a series of vaudeville comedy routines.
But there's a serious undercurrent to the music at odds with the slapstick of the text, just as Apollinaire, apart from his joking, has some serious points to make. The prologue, for example, in which the moral is set forth (‘France! Have more babies!’), is sung to music that would not have been out of place in Poulenc's DIALOGUES DES CARMÉLITES. Tiresias was, of course, the blind prophet who had the distinction of having lived as a man and as a woman. The myth goes that Tiresias saw two snakes mating, wounded the female, and became a woman himself (or now, herself). A number of years passed, when she saw the same two snakes. This time, she wounded the male and became a man again. By this point, we should be able to guess that Apollinaire wants to talk about gender.
Thérèse, a bored housewife, is sick of her confinement to the home. We get a more exact idea of how bored when she interprets her husband's calls for more bacon as lovemaking. She aspires to more than household drudge and recreation. She wishes to be a mathematician, a senator, a telegrapher, doctor, and so on, and so great is her frustration, that she wants to become everything at once. She opens her blouse, and her breasts, transformed into balloons float up. She explodes them with a cigarette, and begins to grow a beard and whiskers. Indeed, she becomes hairier than her rather meek little milquetoast of a husband. Once she shaves, she transforms into an elegant young man, gives herself the name Tiresias, and sets off on a great career as everything she wants to become.
The deserted husband meanwhile reasons that wealth is children. He determines to have children without the need of a woman and manufactures 40,049 babies in a single day. Almost all of them have great careers, and he lives off their income. But all is not ideal. The sudden huge population increase has put a great strain on the resources of Zanzibar. Thérèse returns with the knowledge that she is dissatisfied. All the careers in the world haven't made up for the love she has missed. She woos her husband and transforms back into a young woman. The couple reunite – not without the husband lamenting the loss of her breasts (‘Bah!’ she replies, ‘Don't complicate matters’) – and the opera ends with a grand chorus advising people to ‘scratch if it itches’.
One can, of course, see the work as sexist, but I think Apollinaire is up to something else, or at least more. What's wrong with the separate careers of husband and wife is not the gender reversal, but the fact that they are separate – a denial of love as well as of sex.
Civilization gets in the way again. Convention makes Thérèse unhappy enough to forsake love. Forsaking love in pursuit of synthetic utopias also raises serious problems. Apollinaire ends his play in essentially one giant Prélude to lovemaking as all the women snuggle up to all the men and various actors invite the audience to join in. Poulenc ends his opera with a grand chorus, which alternates between a sultry waltz and a kick of satyr's heels, a hymn to ‘make babies!’, incidentally, one of Poulenc's favorite songs. Why it appears in such a sunny work I leave to better guessers. The cantata finale comes loaded with a funny surprise.”
- Steve Schwartz, Classical.Net
“Denise Duval didn't set out to be a muse. In 1947, as a freshly engaged contract singer, she was rehearsing MADAMA BUTTERFLY at Paris’ Opéra-Comique when a voice bellowed from the darkened auditorium, ‘That’s the soprano I need!’ It was Francis Poulenc, in search of a leading lady for his new comic opera, LES MAMELLES DE TIRÉSIAS. In his frustrated state, he’d likely have settled for almost any suitable singer; instead, he’d just found his ideal. For the next sixteen years - until the end of his life - Denise Duval was his colleague, his friend, his inspiration….it was with the Bordeaux Opéra that she made her professional stage début, in 1943, as Lola in CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA. Over her next two years there, she graduated to Santuzza and to a wide range of roles better suited to her lean, pointed, typically Gallic lyric soprano - Marguerite in FAUST, Mimì, Micaela, Mélisande, Thaïs, and the one that became an early calling-card, Cio-Cio-San. In 1945, Duval traveled to Paris for an audition at the Opéra - and wound up, through a chain of fortuitous connections, with a year’s contract at the Folies-Bergère, where night after night, discreetly costumed, she sang ‘Un bel dì’ and a Chopin song. ‘My parents were thunderstruck, and my teacher nearly had a stroke’, she recalled years later.
The Opéra and the Opéra-Comique finally beckoned, and she made her début at the bigger house, as Salomé in HÉRODIADE, and at its smaller sibling in that career-changing BUTTERFLY. When the frothy, satirical MAMELLES had its premiere, in June 1947 - incongruously, after an already full evening of TOSCA - it was ‘booed, insulted and hissed’, Duval remembered. But like so many other Parisian theatrical scandals, it quickly became an event, and Poulenc soon was writing to a friend, ‘I have an unbelievable Thérèse who is stunning Paris with her beauty, her gifts as an actress and her voice’….Her career blossomed further at both the Opéra and the Comique, where in 1949 she created another role, Francesca in Reynaldo Hahn’s posthumously staged LE OUI DES JEUNES FILLES. In 1952 and 1953, for EMI, she made her first recordings, as Concepción in L’HEURE ESPAGNOLE and as Thérèse in MAMELLES. Her professional itinerary broadened its reach to Monte Carlo, Milan, Aix, Cologne and Florence. But she didn’t hit full stride until 1957, when, at the Opéra, she sang in the French-language premiere of DIALOGUES DES CARMÉLITES, as Blanche, a role Poulenc wrote for her and one she memorably committed to disc on EMI’s still unsurpassed original-Paris-cast recording. In 1959, she scored a still more indelible success as Elle in the premiere (at the Comique) of LA VOIX HUMAINE, the Jean Cocteau monodrama couture-tailored to her talents by Poulenc. In 1960, she repeated that triumph for the opera’s British début (at Edinburgh, with Glyndebourne forces) and its American premiere, as half of an American Opera Society double bill with MAMELLES at Carnegie Hall. The latter stirred the Times’s Howard Taubman to write, ‘It is difficult to imagine a more convincing and more affecting performance than Miss Duval’s’. It led, too, to her Dallas Civic Opera début in 1961, in an elaborate THAÏS directed by Franco Zeffirelli, just as the Edinburgh engagement prompted a two-summer run at Glyndebourne as Mélisande. A broadcast of the second-year revival, from 1963, was issued on official Glyndebourne CDs.
But Poulenc had died earlier that year, and Duval never quite rallied. Following what turned out to be the last of her dozens of performances of Blanche, in Buenos Aires in 1965, she collapsed from a cortisone overdose and essentially retired from singing. After a lengthy recovery, she taught at the École Française de Musique and occasionally directed. But she left two treasured mementi of those latter years - a 1970 film (by director Dominique Delouche) of LA VOIX HUMAINE, in which she gives a riveting lip-synched performance to her own classic recording of a decade earlier; and a master class captured by Delouche in 1998, in which, still très soignée at seventy-seven, she remains the Elle with whom all her successors must reckon.
‘I’m proud that my name will always be connected with [Poulenc’s]’, she once said. The man who called her ‘my Duval’ would surely have returned the compliment.”
-Patrick Dillon, OPERA NEWS, 26 Jan., 2016