Prokofiev, Sergei

OrangesSergei Prokofiev – L’Amour des Trois Oranges

Grand Théâtre de Genève | Benno Besson, Ezio Toffolutti, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Michail Jurowski, Jean Teitgen, Chad Shelton, Katherine Rohrer, Nicholas Testé, Emilio Pons, Heikki Kilpeläinen, Michail Milanov, Jeanne Piland, Clémence Tilguin | Geneva, Switzerland - 23 June 2011

One would imagine that Prokofiev’s 1921 absurdist opera The Love for Three Oranges would be somewhat difficult for anyone more used to a traditional opera format. There are no nice principal characters to sympathise with in their predicaments, there are no memorable arias – even the fact that it deliberately avoids any traditional form is a kind of in-joke dating back to 1761, the original drama by author Carlo Gozzi intentionally avoiding theatrical conventions of the comic and romantic tragedies of the commedia dell’ arte thereby setting himself into opposition against the two major proponents of this form, Pietro Chiari and Carlo Goldini. In reality however, Prokofiev’s opera version is an absolute delight throughout, remaining faithful to the anarchic, nonsensical and childish absurdism of Gozzi’s original, while setting it to some of the most beautiful theatre music that playfully matches the mood and tone of the piece, setting leitmotifs to the characters and themes in a way that adds fluency and consistency to the work as a whole.

In the hands of a sympathetic stage director – and there could hardly be a more appropriate choice for this staging at the Grand Théâtre de Genève than the renowned theatre director Benno Besson, a collaborator and friend of Bertolt Brecht, who has staged several Carlo Gozzi works and is familiar with his themes – this can be wonderful material to play with. Working in collaboration with Ezio Toffolutti, the Geneva production is a wonderful but knowing staging – one that adheres to the original themes and, surprisingly, manages to even illuminate some of their meaning, showing that it is not entirely absurd just for the sake of it. On the face of it however, the story of a hypochondriac Prince, son of the King of Clubs, who strives to overcome his debilitating weakness through laughter, only to be forced on a quest for the love of three oranges, does sound rather silly – and it is entertainingly played in this way, with all the colour, spectacle and well-rehearsed slapstick of a pantomime.


Watching all this nonsense however – presented as it is on a stage within a stage – is an audience from Venice’s La Fenice theatre, supporters of Goldini and Chiari, looking for traditional romance and drama, who interrupt the opera from time to time to clash with proponents of this new absurdist form of drama. It adds another level to the drama and the entertainment, as well as an appropriate sense of theatricality to the proceedings. It’s such turgid traditional drama fed to the Prince as Marcellian verse by Leandro, the Prime Minister, that is partly responsible for his condition, so a heavy does of absurdist nonsense is just the ticket. The planned and rehearsed antics of the jester Truffoldino however fail to rouse so much as a chuckle with the prince (although they do entertain the real audience), and it is only when Leandro’s co-consiprator, the witch Fata Morgana, accidentally falls over on her backside, legs in the air, that the prince gets an unrehearsed eyeful of reality …and, no doubt, a spark of desire. No matter that this desire can only be satisfied, having braved the dreaded ladle of the Cook, by a quest for the love of three oranges, the peeled back skin of oranges clearly indicate the female anatomical parts that are to bring the Prince happiness when he draws Ninette from one of them.


All this absurdity falls into place meaningfully partly due to the wonderful stage direction, but also if it has any coherence and meaning for a modern audience, it’s down to Prokofiev’s playful, richly brilliant scoring. It’s impossible not to be fully drawn into the proceedings with so much to enjoy from moment to moment, particularly since the score was given a superb, vivacious performance the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under the baton of Michail Jurowski. Whether you actually cared for the characters never mattered – they sang no wonderful arias to persuade you of their charm or depth of soul – but the singing and acting here were of a fine standard nonetheless to keep the audience enthralled, entertained and, in this production, educated even in the finer points of mid-eighteenth century Italian theatre.

GamblerSergei Prokofiev - The Gambler

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin, 2008 | Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Vladimir Ognovenko, Kristine Opolais, Misha Didyk, Stefania Toczyska | Unitel Classica - C-Major

Dostoevsky’s short novella The Gambler is usually paired in book form with Poor Folk, the two stories reflecting rather contrasting themes and styles, but also in a way complementing each other. In Poor Folk, (if memory serves me correctly) a letter-writing couple find that their choices are limited, and the nature of their love defined and denied by the more pressing efforts put into simply struggling to exist. The characters in The Gambler on the other hand may appear to have so much money that they can fritter thousands away on the spin of a roulette wheel, but in reality they are similarly trapped in a lifestyle that restricts and distorts their course of their lives and their actions towards other people. In many ways both stories say a lot about social distinctions, but more in a way that reveals various attitudes and aspects of the Russian character.

Prokofiev’s opera version of The Gambler adheres fairly closely to the characters, themes and narrative of Dostoevsky’s book, the action set in a resort town of Roulettenburg, where the General, his family and entourage are staying at a hotel and making use of its casino. Alexsy, the tutor, has recklessly lost all of the General’s step-daughter Polina’s money on a game of roulette, but is determined to do everything he can to not so much win it back – though that would help – as much as win her favour. Polina however is toying with him, at the same time as accepting the advances of the Marquis, urging Alexsy on to act outrageously towards Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm. The General meanwhile is in serious debt to the Marquis, but is expecting to gain an inheritance from the imminent demise of his mother. His engagement to Blanche rests on this inheritance also, since it is clear that she will not stick around unless the money comes through. To everyone’s great surprise however, the ailing old lady, Babulenka, thought to be on the point of death, turns up in Roulettenburg, with her own ideas on how to spend her money.

Composed in 1916, The Gambler is a little-known and rarely performed early Prokofiev work, and it’s not the easiest opera to like. It’s filled with unsympathetic, rather hateful characters whose sense of reality and the nature of their relationships with other people have been corrupted by money.  The music and singing moreover are not exactly harmonious – you won’t find any hummable arias here. On the other hand, the rising fever pitch that eventually explodes in Act 4 (with some magnificent singing in the last two Acts) is perfectly appropriate for qualities and themes of Dostoevsky’s work, and those are brought out exceptionally well in controversial director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging for the 2008 production at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin. A modern-day staging (there’s nothing in this opera that fixes it in any period, and the themes are completely relevant and modern), Tcherniakov assists in putting across the complexity of the relationships between the characters by allowing different rooms of the hotel and casino to be seen simultaneously in a kind of split-screen form, adding to the picture we have of the personalities, even contradicting and contrasting what is being said by the characters with what is really going on behind the scenes.

Prokofiev’s score does much the same thing, underscoring the behaviour of the characters with emphatic woodwind trills, staccato strings and deep notes from the brass section. The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track on the Blu-ray disc is marvellous for capturing the huge dynamic range of the score, balancing the mix superbly between the singing and the orchestra. Partly that’s down to the scoring being composed not to compete with the singing but rather support it, partly that’s down to Barenboim’s management of the orchestra, and partly it’s down to the excellent surround mix. Consequently the singing dominates and is strong and clear, but when the orchestral parts and flourishes are called for, they are almost overwhelmingly powerful. The 1080/60i transfer is perfectly clear, the direction for television (with some side-stage angles) capturing the flow of what is occurring on the stage. Other than some brief notes in the booklet, there are no extra features on the disc.