Nice Opera presents a double bill of two 20th century masterpieces

Poster courtesy Nice Opera

Nice Opera continues its current season with a double bill of Stravinsky’s mythical tale Le Rossignol and Poulenc’s somewhat off-beat Les Mamelles de Tirésias. A co-production with Champs-Elysées Theatre and Oper Köln, this dual staging is led by conductor Lucie Leguay, with direction by Olivier Py.  

Igor Stravinsky began work on his opera Le Rossignol in 1908. With a libretto by the composer and Stefan Mitoussov, it was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Nightingale and the Emperor of China. When Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, asked Stravinsky to provide the score for his ballet The Firebird – followed by Petrushka and the phenomenonal Rite of Spring – Stravinsky put aside Le Rossignol to concentrate on Diaghilev’s ballets. By the time that he turned his attention back to Le Rossignol in 1914, much had changed in the composer’s life. The two remaining acts featured much more modernistic trends than the lustrous influence of Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, on the first act.

Le Rossignol tells how a fisherman is fascinated by the beauty of the song of a nightingale. Courtiers of the Emperor persuade the bird to go with them to the court of the Emperor, who is equally charmed by it. The Emperor however is subsequently seduced by the singing of a mechanical bird brought to him by emissaries from Japan. The angry nightingale flies away from the court, but does not forget the disloyal Emperor, who falls ill and longs to hear the real nightingale again. The bird arrives and strikes a deal with Death in that he will spare the Emperor if the nightingale sings one more song. This the nightingale does, dawn comes and the emperor recovers. The bird promises to return again each night.

The work was premiered by the Paris Opera at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra on 26th May, 1914 – the eve of the First World War – in a performance conducted by Pierre Monteux. In 1920 the opera was adapted into a ballet, Le Chant de Rossignol, by Diagheliv’s Ballets Russes.

Francis Poulenc is regarded as having made an important contribution to French music in the decades after World War I, and whose songs are considered among the best composed during the 20th century. Like Stravinsky, he also contributed to the repertoire of Diaghilev with his score for the ballet Les Biches, and is well known in the opera repertoire for his work Les dialogues de Carmélites.

 Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias is a two-act opera bouffe with a prologue, the mocking music of which is humorously appropriate to the text by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, upon which it is based. The term “surrealist” was used by Apollinaire to describe his play – considered scandalous in its time. The opera has a frivolous, jazzy score, inspired by the sound of the Twenties, and is probably best summed up by Glyndebourne Opera: “Les Mamelles de Tirésias is a giddy romp of an opera that throws questions of politics, gender and society up into the air and watches them shatter into hundreds of glittering pieces”. It was written in 1945 and premièred at the Opéra-Comique on 3rd June, 1947.

Following the Prologue – in which the Theatre Manager announces that the moral of the drama is that everyone must make more babies – the opera tells of Thérèse, a young married woman, who is fed up with the life of an obedient housewife. She is a feminist, and full of ambitions. She unbuttons her blouse, and her breasts detach themselves and fly away like balloons. Thérèse then updates her husband on this new situation: she will no longer be his wife, and henceforth will be known not as Thérèse but as Tirésias, and determined to campaign against the slavery of childbirth. Her husband – who has temporarily transitioned to a woman – decides that if the women will no longer have babies, then he will undertake the task himself.

In Act II the curtain rises on a stage full of cradles. The lesson, he says, is simple: the more children you have, the richer you will be. Tirésias gets into a fight with a policeman, kills him (although he subsequently recovers), she reveals herself as Thérèse, and she and her husband are happily reunited.

The major roles in these two operas are taken by Rocío Pérez as The Nightingale and Thérèse-Tirésias, and Federico Longhi as the Emperor of China and Thérèse’s husband, and the productions are sung in French with surtitles in French and English.
                                                                                                                            Performances take place at Nice Opera from 28th May to 1st June. Further information and details of ticketing are available on the Nice Opera website.

Information sourced from:

Nice Opera programme notes

Le Rossignol –

Poulenc –

This article first appeared in Riviera Buzz

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