Poulenc’s remarkable comic opera ‘The Breasts of Tiresias’ was written during the darkest days of the German occupation of France. The premiere, at the Opera Comique was a great success, and given this was in 1947, it must have provided a much needed tonic for the war weary Parisians.
The libretto was written by the composer, and adapted from the 1903 play by Apollinaire. He was the playwright that coined the term surrealist’, and his play (and Poulenc’s libretto) is certainly a prime example of surrealism. He draws on the ancient legend of the blind seer Tiresias, who is granted his wish to be a woman to find out what life (and sex) is like for both genders.
Apollinaire transforms and reverses the ancient Tiresias into the very modern Thérèse who wants to make war, not babies. As her breasts float skywards, her husband takes her place – and promptly gives birth to 40,049 babies in a single day. Poulenc makes this into a madcap farcical drama, a racy story that sails close to the wind with many double meanings allied to a sensual and wonderfully crafted score.
The work is in many ways the quintessential 20th-century French comic opera. It is, however, rarely heard – the last high-profile
staging was at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002. This recording is a welcome addition to the catalogue as the work is a gem among 20th-century operas and deserves to be better known.