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Opera review: Long Beach Opera's Surrealist double bill

March 12, 2012 |  4:50 pm

Long Beach Opera's production of Poulenc's "The Breasts of Tiresias"
Surrealist opera sounds like an oxymoron. Isn’t opera already surreal simply by converting conversation into song and thought into arias? Still, a few early 20th century operas are the real surreal deal, actual products from purveyors of the early 20th century French cultural movement.

One of the most important of these is Poulenc’s “The Breasts of Tiresias.” And it, along with Bohuslav Martinu’s more obscure “Tears of A Knife,” were the material for Long Beach Opera’s Surrealist double bill Sunday afternoon at Center Theater (repeating Saturday).

Ken Roht's productions played both outlandish short operas as harebrained farce, and the English translations of the French texts further coarsened incongruities. But in Surrealism nothing is what it seems. With sensational performances by soprano Ani Maldjian, as well as an overall high level of ensemble work all afternoon, serious musical purpose prevailed, reminding us of the useful function of disorienting art in disorienting times.

Poulenc’s “Breasts of Tiresias” was written during a period of outrage, when Paris was under Nazi occupation. Based on a 1903 text by Apollinaire, who coined the term “surrealism” in its introduction, the play was refashioned for war-torn France, which was then in need not only of a celebration of absurdity but of babies.

Thérèse, a bored wife in Zanzibar, becomes Tiresias. She opens her blouse and scrumptiously waltzes away her breasts, which fly off as colored balloons. It is then left to her husband to repopulate France. He produces 40,049 babies in a single day. There are a lot of goings on between a policeman, a couple of gamblers and a newspaper woman. But it ends well when Thérèse’s husband retrieves her balloons/breasts from the lovely night sky. The following advice is imparted by the full cast in the finale: Scratch yourself if you itch. 

Martinu’s half-hour opera, half the length of “Tiresias,” was Sunday’s curtain-raiser. It was written in 1928, when the Czech composer was living in Paris and the '20s weren’t roaring very affably. In the libretto by the Dada and Surrealist poet Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Eleonore is urged by her mother to marry Satan. Instead, she falls in love with a hanged man. She eventually kills herself to be united with her lover, but it turns out that he was Satan all along.

Musically and theatrically, these operas are as notable for their differences as for their common tolerance for absurdity. Martinu's orchestra is a jazz band, and his style is appropriately prickly for existentialist cynicism. Poulenc, on the other hand, charms with light touches of the music hall and deliciously atmospheric effects of 20th century French music.

Roht, though, had Martinu’s “Knife” cut into Tiresias’ “Breasts.” Maldjian wore the same party dress as Eleonore, whom she played as an amusingly bored teenager, and Thérèse. Baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez had the same stripes on the gallows and as the director who sings a faux-serious introduction to “Tiresias.”

While doing no one any favors, costume designer Lake Sharp was downright mean to Robin Buck, Satan in the first opera and Therese’s husband in the second. For most of the Poulenc, he was sentenced to wear a green housedress and a large bow on his head. Funny for perhaps a second, the shmatte became lingering bathos, nearly sinking the whole show.

That whole show was basically a circus. Roht, who is also a choreographer, added two extraneous dancers (Lucie McGrane and Daniele Manzin) who had their uses. They elegantly and sexily moved props and added curious and not displeasing bits of visual information. But the “Tiresias” stage (the Martinu staging was extremely basic) was cluttered with Alan E. Muraoka cartoony props, John J. Flynn’s video of card games and the presence of actor Paul Oppenheim, who ran a slide projector and did a silent monologue.

Nothing, however, hampered Maldjian, whose Eleonore and especially Tiresias became multi-leveled, meaningful -- and very funny -- women in the middle of, and transcending, all the nuttiness. Her singing of the Poulenc was marvelously gratifying, capturing its special mixture of elusiveness and operatic grandeur.

Buck, meanwhile, made the best of a bad situation. Suzan Hanson didn’t have much to sing as either the Mother or the Newspaper vendor, but she was a strong stage presence. In addition to the hanged man and director, Gomez, a fine buffo performer, had a third role as the policeman in the Poulenc and another puerile outfit to overcome.

Faced with an almost impossible task, the company’s artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek kept everything impressively together. Conducting a small ensemble behind the stage, he brought an acidic urgency to Martinu and savored Poulenc’s mercurial moods. An essential melancholy was the itch here that most needed scratching, and Mitisek relieved the irritation.

RELATED:

Ani Maldjian: Go ahead, dare her

Opera review: 'Maria de Buenos Aires' by Long Beach Opera

Opera review: David Lang's 'The Difficulty of Crossing a Field' given Southern California premiere by Long Beach Opera

-- Mark Swed

Long Beach Opera "Martinu and Poulenc Double Bill," Long Beach Opera. Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; 8 p.m. Saturday. $25-$110. Running time: 2 hours. (562) 432-5934 or www.longbeachopera.org.

Photo: Long Beach Opera's production of Poulenc's "The Breasts of Tiresias." Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times.

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