The title role in Francis Poulenc’s 1944 opera Les mamelles de Tirésias is not played by anyone onstage, but by the bag of balloons on director Dan Miller’s prop table. A pair of those balloons, released from soprano Tess Altiveros’ costume—and with the help of a bluish-gray beard that looks like an S.O.S pad exploded on her face—will transform her from the fed-up Thérèse to the belligerent general Tirésias, who, sans mamelles, launches an anti-child campaign. (To drive home the point, the chorus brandishes doll-skewering wooden spikes that the cast calls “baby kabobs.”) That’s not all the gender-switching that goes on here; Thérèse’s husband (tenor Jose Rubio), fearful of France’s depopulation, bears thousands of children without her. Poulenc lavished his farce (based on a play by Guillaume Apollinaire, for which he coined the term “surrealism”) with willfully powder-puffy music; its boulevardier insouciance makes Gigi sound like Wozzeck.
Mamelles is the latest production of the energetic Vespertine Opera; they’ll stage it (sung in English) next week in, appropriately, the Moulin Rouge-y Columbia City Theater. The production’s two-piano accompaniment, by the way, is based on a reduction Benjamin Britten prepared in 1958 for himself and Poulenc to play. Soprano Emily Hindrichs pulled together his performance materials and notes and edited this version, being heard in America for the first time. Since Poulenc, a pianist, never felt wholly comfortable with orchestration, Hindrichs suggests, the music “doesn’t lose anything in a two-piano version—it almost sounds more like [Poulenc]. More sarcastic.” Columbia City Theater, 4916 Rainier Ave. S., 800-838-3006, vespertineopera.com. $20–$25. 8 p.m. Tues., April 2 & Thurs., April 4.