Sergei 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.