A Fabulous Fable
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
Sergei Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges
Alexei Tanovitsky (King of Clubs), Daniil Shtoda (Prince), Nadezhda Serdyuk (Princess Clarice), Alexei Markov (Leander), Sergei Semishkur (Truffaldino), Vladimir Moroz (Pantalone), Pavel Shmulevich (Celio), Ekaterina Shimanovich (Fata Morgana), Ekaterina Sergeyeva (Linetta), Natalia Yevstafieva (Nicoletta), Anastasia Kalagina(Ninetta), Mikhail Petrenko (Cook), Alexander Gerasimov (Farfarello), Kristina Kapustinskaya (Smeraldina)
Kirov Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)
Valery Gergiev (© Marco Borggreve)
The Mariinsky Theater is venerable indeed. It was established in 1783 by the order of Catherine the Great. Valery Gregiev has molded the institution first as principal conductor and artistic director and then, for the past twelve years, as director. Under his leadership, the company has become one of the most important cultural institutions in the world, with a repertoire that goes well beyond Russian operas. But no one performs the operas of their native land as they do. Many of the great Russian operas premiered at the Mariinsky Theater. But not this one.
The Love for Three Oranges had its first performance in Chicago, in 1921, and it was not even sung in Russian. It was performed in French with a libretto by Prokofiev himself. An acclaimed pianist, he was in the United States on tour, first in New York and then in Chicago. He left Russia in large part to escape the turmoil of the revolution. Of course, the opera owed its existence to Prokofiev’s genius but pure chance had a role to play as well. The Director of Chicago Opera, Cleofonte Campanini, wanted to stage another opera by Prokofiev, The Gambler, which was based on a novel by Dostoevsky. This was not to be; the score had been left in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) in the Mariinsky Theater, where Prokofiev had intended it to be produced.
So Prokofiev composed an entirely new opera based on a Russian adaptation (by the famous theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold) of a fable about melancholy and laughter written by the 18th century Venetian dramatist, Carlo Gozzi. This fable was in turn influenced by the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition which valued improvisation and had as its stock characters many of the same figures that we see in Prokofiev’s opera. The plot of the opera unfolds on three levels: on the first, a despairing king, worried about his depressed and hypochondriacal son, arranges for entertainments that he hopes will make him laugh. The newly happy prince then goes on a quest to find love – in the form of one of three oranges, all of which conceal a beautiful princess. On the second level we find the interventions in the prince’s fate and on his journey by a witch, Fata Morgana, and a wizard, Celio. And, on the third, there is the rather arcane debate about the nature of art and the nature of drama. This reflects both a dispute between Carlo Gozzi and his contemporary, the dramatist, Carlo Goldoni, and the artistic ethos of Meyerhold who sought to transform Russian drama from stodgy realism into something far more exciting and spontaneous. Meyerhold and Prokofiev were not alone in their enthusiasm for commedia dell’ arte; Richard Strauss and Stravinsky were also drawn to its improvisational spirit and its characters.
I had seen the Glynebourne production of The Love for Three Oranges, a magical cocktail of fancy and fantasy with elaborate costumes, and scenery designed by Maurice Sendak and directed by Franco Corsaro. There was so much physical comedy. I wondered how the Mariinsky company would fare in this purely concert version.
When they took the stage, my first reaction was awe at the sheer size; a large chorus filled the rear of the stage; a huge orchestra filled the middle. In front, were the singers with the only scenery they had to work with, ten plain chairs. Everything – the images, the characters, the humor and the irony – was conjured up by the orchestra. Menacing poisonous chromaticism foreshadowed the appearance of Fata Morgana, the witch. The solo bassoon expressed the wistfulness and longing of the prince and Ninetta, the one princess who does not die of thirst when liberated from her orange. The orchestra also provided an ironic, even derisory, commentary on the action, principally through the brass, especially the tubas. There was quite a bit of word painting as well.
The score has no real arias and hardly any melodies except for the famous march. The characters declaimed far more than they sang and they were delineated by spare musical means. The chorus, which was superb throughout, commented on the action, addressing the audience as well as the singers. I marvelled at the small clever gestures with which the singers created their characters, such as the carefree Truffaldino, with his hand in his pocket and the gentle Ninetta, resting her head against the head of her prince. They came to life even without costumes or staging.
The singers were uniformly excellent. Tanovitsky’s King sang with a wonderfully deep and resonant voice. Anastasia Kalagina’s Ninetta was enchanting, with her beautiful lyrical voice and bell-like tone. Ekaterina Shimanovich’s Fata Morgana was indeed menacing and also very funny. But it was Mikhail Petrenko’s Cook who stole the show; a bass in a tuxedo, he conjured up a huge malevolent woman with a ladle that doubled as a deadly weapon.
Gregiev was his usual fountain of energy. With neither a podium nor a baton, he exerted total control, drawing out the passion, the drama, the humor, and the brilliant musicality of his orchestra. He and they shepherded the Prince on his quest as he was alternately helped and hindered by the mythic forces personified by Fata Morgana and Celio. This duo was reminiscent of Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Sorastro. The difference however, is profound: Prokofiev did not aim for the psychological and philosophical depth of The Magic Flute. His aim was to delight. And in that, Prokofiev – and Maestro Gergiev and his company -- most definitely succeeded.
Arlene Judith Klotzko