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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891–1953)
The Love for Three Oranges, Opera in four acts and a prologue (1921)
Libretto by the composer, for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s adaptation of L’amore delle tre melarance by Carlo Gozzi. English version by Tom Stoppard.
Bruce Martin (bass) – The King of Clubs; John Mac Master (tenor) – The Prince, his son; Deborah Humble (contralto) – Clarissa, niece of the King; Teddy Tahu Rhodes (baritone) – Leandro, the Prime Minister; William Ferguson (tenor) – Truffaldino, who makes people laugh; Warwick Fyfe (baritone) – Pantaloon, the King’s confidant; Jud Arthur (bass) – Chelio, a sorcerer, the King’s protector; Elizabeth Whitehouse (soprano) – Fata Morgana, a sorceress, Leandro’s protector; Wendy Dawn Thompson (contralto) – Linetta; Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo-soprano) – Nicoletta; Ali McGregor (soprano) – Ninetta; Arend Baumann (bass) – The Cook; Richard Alexander (bass) – Farfarello, a demon; Catherine Carby (mezzo-soprano) – Smeraldina, a slave; Graeme Macfarlane (tenor) – Master of Ceremonies; Tim DuFore (bass) – Herald
Opera Australia Chorus, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra/Richard Hickox
A production by Opera Australia recorded live at the Sydney Opera House in February 2005
CHANDOS CHAN 10347 (2) [49:34 + 49:52]
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It was Vsevolod Meyerhold, the important Russian theatre director of the period, who gave Prokofiev The Love for Three Oranges to read in the spring of 1918, but the original play, by Carlo Gozzi, was premiered as early as 1761. It was a parody of the high-flown Italian theatre of the day, and Prokofiev’s opera is also a parody, even if it was uncertain what he parodied. "Some critics tried to guess whom I was mocking – the audience, Gozzi, the opera reform or those who didn’t know how to laugh", wrote Prokofiev in his autobiography. First performed in Chicago in 1921, sung in French, it wasn’t exactly a success and when it was produced in the Soviet Union four years later the reception was also mixed. On the other hand the orchestral suite that Prokofiev put together later with motifs from the opera, immediately became popular, especially the march.

Prokofiev was partly inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy-tale operas, The Golden Cockerel in particular, but his tonal language is much more daring, even though the colourfulness of the score certainly is on the same level as Rimsky’s – though they use quite different palettes. Satirical elements are also to be found in Rimsky’s operas, which I commented on in a review of a four-opera-box last year (review). Prokofiev, though, goes a step or two further and The Love for Three Oranges is more farce than comedy. It is hilariously funny and the composer, who was still in his late twenties when he wrote the music, must have been in an unusually inventive mood. It is definitely not music that coddles the audience and to the first listeners in the 1920s it must have come as a shock.

Through the years it has been performed on many occasions but has never quite been incorporated in the standard repertoire. One reason for that, besides the partly daring music, is that it requires such large forces. There are Eccentrics, Tragedians, Comics, Lyrics, Empty Heads, Doctors, Little Devils, Courtiers, Monsters, Drunkards, Guards, Servants and Soldiers and sixteen solo roles, not all of them that large, but still demanding. And the orchestral forces are also considerable. But the whole opera, with a playing time of around 100 minutes, is so fresh and funny and stimulating one wishes it could be performed more often. The only time I have encountered it was a performance on Swedish Television many years ago and my memories of it are not very vivid. But this Australian production, recorded live in tremendous sound, is a real knock-out and readers as yet unfamiliar with the work are advised to try it. They will of course recognize the famous march, although it is tantalizingly short when it first appears in act 2, It returns in snippets a couple of times later.

Competition is not very keen. There is a very good Mariinsky recording under Gergiev, sung in Russian, on Philips, and on Erato there was a version in the original French, conducted by Kent Nagano. The present offering is the first in English, so in a way it has the field for itself.

Tom Stoppard’s translation is worth a paragraph of its own. Comparing it with the French text, by Prokofiev and Vera Janacopoulos, which is printed side by side with Stoppard’s, one immediately notices that it is far from a "translation". Stoppard grabs every opportunity to go his own way, to find brilliant references to all sorts of things. Let me just quote something from act 3, when the Prince and Truffaldino have found the three giant oranges and the sorcerer Chelio says: These oranges are not to be opened, except near water, proper H20…whereupon the Prince sings: I’m dreaming of an Orange Christmas!

The recording engineer and producer, Allan Maclean and Ralph Couzens, have found a perfect balance between the orchestra and the voices and practically every syllable can be heard, even from the various choral constellations, which is a rare thing. It’s a big bold sound and Richard Hickox draws excellent playing from the orchestra, where some of the instrumentalists also have a field day. Hickox prefers brisk tempos and there is a rhythmic vitality and springiness that keeps the whole performance alive. The choral singing is also delivered with resilience and precision, the Doctors’ chorus in act one (CD 1 track 2) being as fine an example as any.

As for the solo singing there are no traditional arias – the dramatic tempo is too high for that – and what is needed is not bel canto singers but character singers, who can act with their voices. Of course one often misses the visual element but still surprisingly much of the action was brought over to my living-room with amazing vivacity. There are some wobblers among the cast but that matters fairly little in this case. All the singers/actors are well inside their parts and my listening session gave me two of the most amusing hours I have had for a very long time – and I am not leading a particularly dull life.

An extra bonus is the 96 page booklet. Besides Stoppard’s text and the French original, there is an interesting essay by David Nice, a synopsis, CVs for all the soloists (with photos) and a number of photos from the performances. The live recording is uncommonly clean, considering that there is a lot of "business" on stage, there are traces of the audience laughing at some of the wittiest turns in the text and after the last act a short round of applause.

All in all: great entertainment presented with the highest possible production values.

Göran Forsling



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