The Opera Project – Purcell and Poulenc

The Opera Project was a double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This review appeared originally at Opera Britannia.

Rating: ★★★★☆

At first sight, the pairing of Dido and Aeneas with Poulenc’s surrealist piece Les Mamelles de Tirésias seems to make little sense at all. However, glorious madness was very much the spirit of the evening and the pair of works – billed as The Opera Project was a brilliant success and a showcase for a number of young singers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Dido and Aeneas was the more conventional of the works staged. At the very heart of this was a rock-solid Dido in the form of Eirlys Myfanwy Davies. Shimmering into view from an on-stage haze in a dazzling red and sequin dress, she looked stunning. She was also not going to be upstaged by her costume; her voice was just as shiny. Wonderfully, she had a Belinda alongside her (Victoria Stevens) who was just as good as she was.

The staging was sparse – a small orchestra (harpsichord, theorbo, baroque guitar and some strings), conducted by Timothy Dean, were sitting in an apse at the back of the stage and in view all the time. Behind them was the chorus who took no part in the dramatic action. Sitting where they were, somehow the choruses became a compassionate commentary on what was unfolding in front of them – something I’ve not felt with anything like this intensity when seeing the work before.

Storytelling had been thought about a lot. A small box kept appearing and different characters took their turns to stand on it to sing directly to the audience as though taking on the aspect of a narrator, Ms Stevens being wonderfully knowing. Dido’s love interest, Euros Campbell as Aeneas, had a slightly uneasy first entrance but any worries about intonation very quickly disappeared and a shining, bold voice appeared. During the first half of the evening it seemed clear to me that Mr Campbell was more of a singer than an actor but, as we shall see, the second half made me question that judgement.

Meanwhile, there was much to enjoy from Sorceress Jane Monari and the witches – Charlotte Hoather and Anna Churchill. Ms Monari was particularly confident and had a gorgeously smooth tone. She had been present from the beginning as a member of Dido’s court and her sudden revealing of herself by the removing of her hair was a brilliant moment of stagecraft. The only thing that really got in the way of this production was a group of dancers who, though no doubt doing all that they had been told, struggled to add anything to what was going on around them. Several of them need to think a little more about facial expression – there are few smiles to be had in the court of the queen of Carthage. A number of slightly uncomfortable pauses for applause – which-never-came, were generated by the need for the dancers to form several tableaux.

When it came time for Dido to depart this world, Ms Davies gave a very eloquent rendition of the famous lament. It was simple and very beautiful. My only worry was that this deathbed scene, with lovely bed, sumptuous white linen and flower petals trickling down from above was just a little bit more John Lewis than most deaths really are. However, this reservation should not take away from the beauty of Ms Davies’s singing and the real sense of grief from Ms Stevens’s Belinda at the awful end.

It was difficult to know what we would be treated to after the interval. I have to confess that I had never heard Les mamelles de Tirésias performed before  – however, this was such a great rendition of a tricky piece that I’ll look out for it in the future. Poulenc claimed this to be one of his favourite works which makes it something worth taking notice of. But it is also crude, rude and hilariously bonkers from beginning to end and deserves to be much better known that it is.

Before the action proper took place, Poulenc’s haunting song Bluet was sung by Matthew Thomas Morgan. This elegy for the fallen and the damaged of war set the scene beautifully for the madness that was to follow.

Les mamelles de Tirésias (Tirésias’s boobs!) has a plot that is so barmy that one struggles to keep up. The most widely available synopsis begins – “Thérèse tires of her life as a submissive woman and becomes the male Tirésias when her breasts turn into balloons and float away. Her husband is not pleased by this, still less so when she ties him up and dresses him as a woman.” This covers just the first couple of minutes and things get more and more out of hand the more we see and hear.

Euros Campbell reappeared as the theatre director who assured us that he was responsible for the surreal events that we would see before us and was clearly more confident bouncing about the stage as though he were in charge than he had been earlier in the evening. The stand-out performance of the evening was Barbara Cole Walton as Thérèse / Tirésias. She managed to keep on top of the soaring score with absolutely sparkling singing.

Playing opposite Ms Walton was Jonathan Cooke as the hapless husband – Le Mari who rather swiftly ended up loosing his dignity as the fearless protofeminist Thérèse tied him up and went off on her own way. Cooke’s spirited singing anchored the plot, which was getting sillier by the minute and his comic timing was as sharp as the rest of the cast.

The audience loved Brian McBride and Kenneth Reid as the duelling comedy pair Presto and Lacouf who ultimately end up killing one another because they can’t quite decide which end of France they are in. Interestingly, they sounded as though they came from different parts of France too – one sounding to my ears as though he had a more southern accent, though whether that was by lucky accident, I’ve no idea. Another great comedy turn came from David Horton as the policeman. A shout-out ought to go to his reliable hobbyhorse upon which he galumphed about the stage.

Once again there were some superfluous dancers but they did not get in the way as much as in the first half. All was forgiven them for one particularly funny dying swan moment. This work is a useful reminder that ideas that begin in the world of the surreal and the absurd sometimes come to pass. The idea that lesbians might marry was clearly nuts in 1947. As was the idea of cloning and of men becoming women and women becoming men. All have come to pass. Apollinnaire’s libretto and Poulenc’s music were, in their day, a vehicle for the absurd. This performance was a reminder that the surreal is not so much a way of denying reality but a way of seeing it as it actually is. It is also useful to be reminded that Poulenc’s own sexuality is integral to his music.

The work was performed in a version by Benjamin Britton for two pianos which were both on stage throughout. Pianists Marija Struckova and Michal Gajzler gamely kept the relentless musical pace going under musical direction of Oliver Rundell. 

This was an hilarious farce and it is hard to remember the last time I had so much fun at the opera. Director Mark Hathaway is to be congratulated on a most satisfying evening. The senior students of the conservatoire promise much for the future.