It’s bright, it’s bold and it’s barking mad. If you want surrealism, go to the source: Guillaume Apollinaire, the man who invented the word, and his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, turned into an opera by Francis Poulenc. The story starts when Thérèse gets fed up with her husband’s incessant demands for sex and decides to turn herself into a man (the breasts of the title become a pair of giant helium balloons which waft gently over the stage). It then turns into fifty minutes of undiluted hilarity in the hands of director Laurent Pelly and a largely French cast.

Les Mamelles de Tirésias
© Glyndebourne Festival | Bill Cooper

Beforehand, the first half of Glyndebourne’s Poulenc Double Bill is an entirely darker affair: La Voix humaine. When the curtain rises, we see a solitary woman crumpled into a foetal position. She wears a coat over her black nightdress, she holds a 1950’s style telephone on a long cord. She is beautiful, she is exhausted and she is desperate. Over the next 45 minutes of monologue, all we will hear is her side of a telephone conversation with her ex, repeatedly interrupted by line failures and crossed lines, as she tries and fails to come to terms with the fact that he has left her. Her despair increases at every moment until finally, she wraps the telephone cord around her neck. When the curtain falls, we know what will happen next.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Elle)
© Glyndebourne Festival | Bill Cooper

Stéphanie d’Oustrac gives us a rare combination of honeyed timbre and immaculate diction in a way that utterly beguiles and never falters – it’s a quite extraordinary feat of singing, especially for a mezzo singing a soprano role. Robin Ticciati conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra sensitively in Poulenc’s cinematic score, giving the orchestra its head in the big moments of romantic swell and keeping them in check elsewhere to give primacy to d’Oustrac’s voice.

We understand every syllable and nuance of Elle's thought process and we exhaustively explore the awfulness of being of a woman with nothing left to live for. But still, this performance doesn’t quite work as a piece of drama. The crisis point of the opera, the point at which Elle realises that her ex is speaking not from his home but from that of his new lover, should hit us like a thunderbolt as we realise that Elle’s suicide is now inevitable, but it passes almost unnoticed. With all that beauty of voice, we miss the extremes.

Régis Mengus (Husband), Elsa Benoit (Thérèse)
© Glyndebourne Festival | Bill Cooper

Missing the extremes certainly isn't a charge you could level at Les Mamelles. Switching from monologue to ensemble piece, from monochrome into technicolor, the mood flips 180° into joyous, nose-thumbing, slapstick irreverence. At the start, a faux-serious prologue (added to the play during World War 1) in which “the Theatre Director”, sung with relish by Gyula Orendt, explains the moral of the story: the war has stripped France of its young men and the French must have more babies! In 1945, two years before Poulenc wrote the opera, de Gaulle had appealed similarly to the French people “to make 12 million beautiful babies” – perhaps he had read Apollinaire’s play, in which Thérèse’s husband, denied procreation by his wife, decides to go it alone and devises a machine which enables him to make 40,049 babies in a single day.

François Piolino (Monsieur Lacouf), Christophe Gay (Monsieur Presto)
© Glyndebourne Festival | Bill Cooper

Pelly’s staging and Caroline Ginet’s set designs are packed with surprises, from the giant sheet that turns the whole stage into Thérèse’s marital bed, to the slides which shift characters smoothly sideways on and off stage, to  brilliantly coloured costumes with matching face paint, to the Husband’s glorious Heath Robinson baby-making machine. But the coup de théâtre to top them all is the appearance of the 40,049 puppet babies, with the chorus members melded into the front row manipulating them as they sing.

40,049 babies
© Glyndebourne Festival | Bill Cooper

You know that a farce is working when it’s obvious that every cast member is having a ball. There are too many strong performances to mention them all, but pride of place goes to Elsa Benoit’s sassy Thérèse, matched by Régis Mengus as the Husband and Orendt as the hapless policeman. I particularly enjoyed the interlude between Mengus and James Way as his journalist son: the son’s explanation that he must dash since he has to invent tomorrow’s news is horribly prescient of the post-truth world of today.

The best satire makes you think as well as making you laugh. Elle wants nothing more than sexual subservience, and it doesn’t turn out well for her. Thérèse isn’t going to put up with it and we get a glorious romp as a result. I’m slightly disappointed that she relents in the end, but that’s not enough to stop Les Mamelles de Tirésias being the most fun I’ve had in an opera house in a very long time.

****1