Great moments in opera: Love for Three Oranges

November 6, 2012

Sergei Prokofiev’s reputation rests principally on his orchestral and piano music, and until recently I had not felt any particular desire to explore his operas. In any case, The Love for Three Oranges sounded to me like a surrealist work, for which I’ve little patience. While reading Richard Taruskin’s History of Western Music, however, I found that he dwelt at considerable length on this opera, and so I decided to take a look.

It’s not as bad as I’d feared, but not as good as might be hoped. The story is actually quite a lot of fun: it is ultimately derived from a seventeeth-century commedia dell’arte, and retains some of the zaniness of its original. A young prince who has not laughed for years finally gets the giggles when he sees a witch slip and fall. In return, she places a curse on him: he will fall in love with three oranges, and will seek them to the ends of the earth. This he does, and when he finds them, and peels them open, he discovers a beautiful princess inside each one. Unfortunately the princesses are very thirsty, and he hasn’t any water, so two of the three die immediately. The third is saved by a quaint device — which I’ll get to in a moment — and the prince and princess are married.

It is a surrealist opera, in the sense that beautiful princesses clambering out of oranges to sing opera are surreal, but, as Taruskin convincingly argues, it is primarily an ironic — even post-modern — opera, and thus a spiritual progenitor of much that followed. In addition to the characters in the fairy tale, Prokofiev has several groups of observers who wander on and off the stage, commenting on the proceedings, arguing with one another, and even interacting with the conductor and the audience. Thus there is a recurrent breaking of the “fourth wall” dramatic convention. We, as viewers, are continually reminded that we are viewers, and that the actors are actors, and that we’re sitting in a theatre, and that the whole set-up is one great artifice. Perhaps this kind of thing was edgy in 1921, when the opera had its premiere (and Taruskin notes that Prokofiev’s opera actually predated Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is usually credited with bringing this kind of self-awareness and ironic commentary to the stage), but it has grown stale in the interim.

There is still the music to consider. After watching one DVD production and listening to one CD recording, I can hardly be said to have adequately absorbed the music of the opera, but I can say this: it’s alright. There is nothing that particularly flatters the ear, nor remains long in the memory, but neither is there anything unusually agonizing about it. It is a rough-hewn music, with a good deal of rhythmic verve, but not much in the way of melody.

We won’t, therefore, belabour the search for “great moments”. I have one: this is, it is fair to say, the climactic scene of the opera, in which the third princess emerges from her orange. She complains of thirst, and the Prince is distressed, for they are in a desert and have no water. But then a miracle happens: someone watching the singers from the wings notices that he has a bottle of water, and brings it on-stage for the princess. She drinks, is revived, and turns lovingly to the Prince, setting the stage for a moving love scene, which is, however, interrupted by another group of disgruntled commentators who really wanted to see a tragedy. This clip, though a bit long, illustrates most of what is interesting about the opera, its irony and its self-consciousness, both for better and for worse. This clip is taken from the DVD I watched; the Netherlands Opera is under the direction of Stéphane Denève, and I think that is Sandrine Piau singing the part of the princess:

The most famous music from this opera is actually drawn from the orchestral interludes, which Prokofiev excerpted and arranged into a suite, and the most famous part of the suite is the March. It’s not opera, but it’s pretty good nonetheless:

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