TO CHARACTERIZE my play I had to use a neologism," Apollinaire remarked in his preface to The Breasts of Tiresias, "so I coined the adjective surrealist...When man wanted to imitate a walk," he added by way of definition, "he made the wheel, which does not resemble a leg. Thus he created surrealism without knowing it."
Thirty years later Francis Poulenc made Tiresias into a strange but beautiful opera. The characters think it is set in Zanzibar though it really takes place in France, the whole cast marches grandly across the stage from time to time to remind the audience of the moral--"Make babies now!" --and audiences actually laugh at the opera's jokes. Last weekend the Lowell House Opera Society brought it to Boston with style and grace.
Doing Poulenc perfectly requires voices of absolute clarity, but the acting of Lowell House's singers--nearly all Harvard students--and Edith Marshall's superb directing were more than enough compensation. It would have been hard to improve on Kerry McCarthy as the title feminist, Therese (when she changes her sex she becomes Tiresias), staring in astonishment as her breasts turned into green and blue balloons and floated away. Thomas Fuller matched her as her husband, demanding his dinner ("he only thinks about love," she observed) or showing off the 40,049 babies he had made by himself in a single day, and Harris Saunders, as the Journalist, twirled his umbrella suavely as he threatened to expose his father. Best of all, perhaps, was Roger Freeland as the continually benevolent and continually bewildered gendarme.
Freeland also stood out in the curtainraiser, a dull concert version of Purcell's Indian Queen, because he sang English instead of whatever tenors are singing when they roll their r's like guttural hyenas on second-rate recordings of Handel oratorios. Fuller and McCarthy also sang well; Lise Landis, the clown Apollinaire described in one of his less inspired couplets as "Zanzibar's Monsieur Lacouf/Who died and died again without saying ouf," joined Peter Kellogg in an entr'acte dance that was both comic and lyrical.
Poulenc's score is more comic and lyrical still, and Gerald Moshell and his orchestra played it right, slipping unnoticeably into ancient waltzes and nostalgia-laden dancehall tunes, sounding the melancholy beneath the jokes, mixing, in fact, memory and desire.