Le Gateau Chocolat thinks a Poulenc opera where the heroine releases her breasts as balloons floating upwards, morphs into a bearded man and whose husband then gives birth to 40,049 — yes, it is that precise — babies the next day in reprisal, does not transgress the boundaries of current political correctness.
So, that’s alright then. I had been unaware of the cultish Le Gateau Chocolat until this week. He is a black, bearded, plus-sized Drag Queen. Don’t worry. I’m safe from woke pursuit, as that is his self-description in a Pink News YouTube Video.
According to The Guardian, he is a UK stage fixture. Go-to pundit for all things “cool”. Figures in BBC Radio 1’s highly influential Fun and Filth Cabaret. What? And the point of all this background is that he was wheeled into action on a Glyndebourne trailer for the festival’s potentially controversial Poulenc double bill.
La Voix Humaine and Les Mamelles de Tirésias tackle difficult subjects head on. La Voix is a solo performance from an abandoned suicidal woman in a one-sided telephone conversation with her former lover.
Les Mamelles is more surreal. It challenges accepted gender roles and French entrenched morality post-Second World War. Thérèse, the heroine and a tragic figure, discards her breasts to become a man. The original was written by Apollinaire during the dark days of the First World War and Poulenc “wrote the opera for my own amusement”.
Both operas are comedic tragedies and thematically ahead of their time. Le Gateau Chocolat is interviewed by the estimable, but slightly bemused, Alexandra Coughlan, the in-house arts journalist at Glyndebourne. Paxman-like, she terriers her interviewee until she gets the answer she wants — and the all-clear for Mamelles.
Le Gateau — who once threw a wobbly at a Tannhauser performance in Bayreuth when he discovered that Hitler liked Wagner — circles the issue of the comedic, inflated, skyward inclined breasts. He justifies them as a serious metaphor, swoops on the point that Thérèse is entitled to define herself and reaches the glib conclusion that it’s alright if you’re laughing with her and not at her.
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I strongly recommend Liz Truss appoints Le Gateau as a government spokesman, lickety-split upon her arrival in No10. He can defend the indefensible. Seeing him twist, turn, postulate, expostulate, rationalise and reach the exonerating conclusion he had been brought on to deliver in the first place, was like watching President Joe Biden trying to put on his jacket. Agonising, but, eventually, job done!
He’s your man for explaining why it’s a good idea to export immigrants to Rwanda, how to cut taxes while increasing public spending and could usefully be sent to Northern Ireland to convince them why a hard border in the Irish Sea isn’t.
Francis Poulenc wrote only three operas. The third is Dialogues des Carmélites, which premiered in La Scala, Milan in 1957; a 20th century masterpiece. Poulenc rarely embarked on any project lightly, so the “shorts” on Glyndebourne’s double bill may be comedic, anarchic and surreal, but they have a serious purpose.
Director, Laurent Pelly, has done a magnificent job staging both.
La Voix is set on a dark, empty stage, the only prop being the telephone. A proper one, with a dial and handset attached by a cord. In the opening scene, Elle is on a platform that sees-saws slowly back and forth revealing a backdrop with a threatening line of orange — sunset, fire, who knows?
Most other productions I have seen are in a furnished apartment stuffed with the paraphernalia of the ended relationship. Pelly leaves you in no doubt that the abandonment of Elle has been cruel and left her adrift with not even possessions to offer consolation.
Stéphanie d’Oustrac, a French mezzo-soprano blew the Glyndebourne audience away. Her shift from comedic frustration when someone else kept coming on the line, through her defiant acceptance of the ended relationship, face-saving lying about dining with her friend Marthe, when in reality she had attempted suicide, to the final, bitter realisation that her former lover is speaking to her from his new girlfriend’s house is horribly convincing.
As she coils the handset around her neck, repeats that she loves him and drops the receiver as the lights go down, the audience is left in no doubt about the tragedy we have seen.
There is an excellent Danielle de Niese film of the opera for television released in April this year, but it lacks the intensity of the live stage version. A drama version featuring Tilda Swinton is also available on BBC iPlayer and well worth watching. Not least because La Swinton does not take rejection lying down.
A bag of compromising letters to be picked up by the Cad’s chauffeur, Joseph, in the opera version turns out to be a set of surprisingly large suitcases. The dog the couple had shared, loyal to Cad, sniffs the cases and promptly takes Tilda’s side.
Woofy knows a thing or two about the side upon which dog biscuits are buttered. La Swinton then douses the cases and apartment in petrol, tosses in a match and stalks out nonchalantly with the dog.
The point is, that she has killed Cad, chopped him up and put him in the suitcases. Woofy can tell. The whole phone call thing is a spoof to create the impression he is still around. Good luck to forensics in finding any evidence. I think this is a far more satisfactory ending than the opera. Three cheers of Tilda.
Part of the power of the piece is hearing only one side of Elle’s conversation, allowing the audience to fill in its own blanks. d’Oustrac certainly deserved the ovation she received when the lights went down. She is interviewed by Coughlan here — 2.25 minutes in.
A full synopsis of Les Mamelles is to be found here. At the end, when the husband and wife are reconciled the whole cast instructs the audience “make babies”. Poulenc is getting a fixation in French politics that the First World War had deprived the country of a generation and that anything that got in the way of procreation was degenerate.
That included homosexuality. And, as Poulenc was openly homosexual, his mocking opera is a kickback at intolerance. Certainly, during the 1930s he had to keep his sexual inclinations private.
It is hardly surprising that Poulenc’s treatment of the subject is surreal. He was one of a group of avant-garde composers, known as Les Six; George Auric; Louis Durey; Arthur Honegger; Darius Milhaud; Germaine Tailleferre, and Poulenc himself.
They modelled themselves on Les Cinq, an earlier group led by composer Mily Balakirev. Hardly original. It was Poulenc’s long association with Jean Cocteau and the impression made by Apollinaire’s First World War play that inclined him towards a surreal offering.
Pelly has jumped in with both feet. The scene with the 40,049 babies drew spontaneous applause. The front row was baby costumes inhabited by the chorus, bawling and waving arms. Behind stretched row upon row of lookalikes in diminishing sizes until they reached a backstage vanishing point.
The father sings of the need to have children to keep him in old age. The babies cry for lack of food. There is an acknowledged need to introduce rationing. Whatever will this winter bring? To get a feel for the bright colours and the sense of all-pervading anarchy I recommend a Glyndebourne trailer — here.
And what of those ascending mammaries? In many productions, there is some shifty work with balloons. Not here. They appeared as enormous, nippled spheres, supported by large poles stage left and right, and loomed over the action.
There was some unexplained sparking in their vicinity, which I childishly hoped was going to lead to an explosion, but either the device failed, or my overheated imagination had run riot.
As the summer festival season draws to a close, Glyndebourne likes to mount something off-piste. I just hope they’ve got Le Gateau Chocolat on contract to justify whatever ground breaker they schedule in 2023. And there is still time to take in this magnificent double bill. Last performance, 28 August.
Poulenc Double Bill at Glyndebourne Opera Festival – 6-28 August.