As Russia approached its revolutionary year in 1917, masks and magic entered its performing arts culture with such a fevered pitch that the desire for escapism has rarely been more gratingly obvious. Prokofiev’s youthful opera, which tough political circumstances forced to premiere in Chicago in 1919, grasped on to this trend. Loosely based on the work of the eighteenth-century Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi, The Love for Three Oranges parodies the traditional quest epic. It tells the tale of a melancholic crown prince who will die if he is not saved by laughter. Schemers who want to seize his rightful place as heir enlist the black magic of Fata Morgana to ensure this never happens, but are foiled when he laughs at Fata Morgana herself, both saving his life and defusing their plot. The wounded sorceress curses him with an incurable love for three magical oranges, which he must steal before crossing a barren desert. Punished by thirst, he opens each one to discover a princess inside. The first two die of thirst, but the friendly sorcerer Tchelio, Fata Morgana’s enemy, provides water to save the third. The spiteful Fata Morgana turns her into a rat, but the true power of love restores her to human form before the schemers can take advantage of the situation. In the end all is forgiven, and even the schemers are spared the hangman’s noose. All the while, masked mystics watch the action and debate the merits of comedy and tragedy.
What the opera could have meant in revolutionary Russia’s turbulent cultural universe is anyone’s guess. Simple escapism or a contemplation of a world in which nothing is really what it appears stand out as explanations. Gilbert Deflo’s production, which premiered in 2005, evokes the era of Russian modernism with a cool accuracy. The epic unfolds in period costumes, while the stage movement reflects the innovative, stylized approach of the modernist director Vsevolod Meyerhold, a radical supporter of the Russian Revolution who nevertheless became one of its victims.
The American tenor Charles Workman starred as the Prince. The voice is not of heroic proportions, but the limpid sounds demanded by composers working in the modernist genre suit it well. The major vocal plaudits go to the fine baritone Vincent Le Texier for his character portrayal of Tchelio. Marie-Ange Todorovitch was not quite his equal as Fata Morgana, but still catapulted into a fireball of energy thanks to the splendid scenes Deflo created for the character and her spiteful machinations. The lesser roles all went to excellent young singers who brought the plot into greater relief. The talented Franco-Algerian soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul brought a limpid beauty to the role of Princess Ninette, the surviving princess who captures the melancholic prince’s heart. And the bass Hans-Peter Scheidegger received a well deserved ovation for his brief appearance as the cook whose kitchen houses the enchanted oranges. A very rare case of a bass role written for a female character, he endowed his scene with superb comedy. The orchestra was fortunately placed in the hands of the excellent conductor Alain Altinoglu, who mastered Prokofiev’s complex score and delivered rousing renditions of the opera’s famous march.
- Paul du Quenoy