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Fantastic and Amusing

The MHS Review 240 Vol 3, No 6 May 28, 1979

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David M. Greene


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These days, as I begin to totter, I frequently find myself totting up my blessings. Among said blessings is the privilege of having been able to hear all seven of Prokofiev's mature operas (there are five immature ones unlikely to be resurrected). Even better, I've been lucky enough to see three of them--two twice, if I am permitted the TV showing of War and Peace. When you consider that the Metropolitan has staged not one, and that productions by other major American companies can be counted on the toes of Long John Silver's feet, that's not bad. In my opinion, they are at least as viable as the operas of Britten or Berg (though I'm willing to reject the propaganda pieces Semyon Kotko and The Story of a Real Man if I must.) I suppose the barrier is the Russian texts. But the Europeans don't mind a bit playing them in the vernacular, and recently it has proved not impossible for international casts (involving few if any Russians) to do Boris and Onegin in something approximating the original tongue at the Met.

The curiously-titled The Love for Three Oranges (so called because that's what it's about), was Prokofiev's second opera, preceded by The Gambler (which the Bolshoi played in New York a few years back, though 1 had to forego it). There is a popular superstition that all opera plots are silly farragos concocted by semi-literate hacks. Maybe so, but most of the standard examples have their origin in commendable literary works by more-than-respectable writers. The ultimate source of this one was the play La Fiaba dell'amore delle tre melarancie by Carlo Gozzi. Count Gozzi (Gawd-zi) was a Venetian dramatic satirist who seems to have been born a century too soon, for operatic use at least, for the successes based on his comedies have been of our time: the Turandots of Puccini and Busoni, the King Stag of Hans Werner Henze, and the work in question. (To be sure, there were earlier tries, such as the Turandots of Weber and Franz Danzi, but they were not exactly smashes.) Gozzi works with a strange mixture of romantic fairytale and commedia dell'arte, adroitly making fun of both conventions.

Prokofiev came to Gozzi's story rather indirectly. Just before he left Russia, he found an account of it by the playwright Vsevolod Meyerhold in a newly-founded avant-garde magazine called Dr. Daper­tutto 's Journal (after the baddie in The Tales of Hoffmann). His adaptation of it is not the simplest narrative imaginable, but I'll do what l can. The central suspense focuses on the fortunes of the Prince of Clubs, a hypochondriac suffering from no fewer than eighteen diagnosable sets of symptoms, including a dreadful inability to laugh. His father, the King of Clubs (supported by his good genius Celio) is worried about the succession, coveted by his niece Clarissa with the connivance of the Prime Minister Leandro, and the support of the wicked witch Fata Morgana. The "real" characters, who also include the jester Truffaldino and the chief courtier Pantaloon, are cardboard cutouts from the commedia dell'arte. The magical or diabolic figures, who include the apprentice witch Smeraldina and a devil named Farfarello, may be descendants to the "vices" from the old morality plays. There is also obviously a clear division of good-evil or white-black, though, truth to tell, no characters are either very admirable or very loathsome. Finally there is an outermost layer consisting of an on stage ''audience,'' four-fifths of which wrangles endlessly over the superiority of comedy, tragedy, romance, or farce. The remaining fifth, called the eccentrics, is largely interested in getting on with the action, in which it several times takes a controlling hand. Once one gets all this under control, the story itself is not all that difficult. Everyone is trying to get the poor prince to laugh. Fata Morgana appears and tries to thwart their efforts. The jester sends her sprawling and the Prince is thrown into hysterics. The furious witch thereupon curses him to fall hopelessly in love with three oranges. Celio is unable to put the kibosh on her, because she has previously defeated him in a card game, so off go the Prince and Truffaldino, impelled by a bellows operated by Farfarello. On their way to the dreadful castle of Kreonta, in whose kitchen the oranges are to be found, they are intercepted by Celio, who slips them a pretty ribbon, with which they manage to distract the attention of Kreonta's cook, a gig,mtic female who sings basso profundo. Darkness overtakes them in the desert after their escape, and while the Prince is asleep, Truffaldino slices open one of the oranges. Out steps a lovely princess and expires of thirst. Ditto with the second. Truffaldino flees. The Prince wakens, and operates on the last orange. Its princess, Ninetta, is about to join her sisters when the Eccentrics rush onstage with buckets of water and save her. But back at the Palace Fata Morgana's little helper Smeraldina turns her into a rat and offers herself to the Prince as Ninetta. Again the Eccentrics intervene, lock up Fata Morgana, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The opera was first produced by the Chicago Opera Company in that memorable season of 1921-22 when Mary Garden, international beauty and prima donna, was, as she signed herself, the "directa" (presumably the feminine of director.) Everyone agreed that it was the most stunning season in years. And no wonder. Mary lavished money on productions and rehearsals. She also demonstrated the most incredible whimsicality, paying off star performers who, she decided, she didn't want to hear after all, and getting the company involved in lawsuits. Her first season was her last--and almost the last for the company. The Prokofiev opera was not her idea. It had been commissioned some three years earlier by her precedessor, Cleofonte Campanini. Prokofiev had tried to sell him on The Gambler, but Campanini wanted a new work. When Prokofiev mentioned Gozzi, the Italian was delighted. But no sooner had Prokofiev set to work than he was dealt a one-two punch by scarlet fever and diphtheria. Then it took longer than expected to get the extraordinarily lavish production together. Then Campanini up and died. Prokofiev, who was not doing well at all in a country that insisted he was a Bolshevik, tried to sue the company and found he had not read the fine print. Eventually Mary got the thing onstage on December 30, 1921, with the composer conducting. There was some interesting casting. The Prince was a stunningly handsome Mexican tenor named Jose Mojica, known as the "Valentino of opera." He later had a movie career, but when his beloved mother died, he, at her wish, became a Franciscan friar. He died quite recently. He had been stone deaf for years. Fata Morgana was the great Russian soprano Nina Koshetz for whom Rachman­inoff and Prokofiev wrote many of their songs. She too was exotically beautiful in her youth, but when I used to see her in New York in the '40's (about the time she appeared in the film Algiers) she was absolutely spherical. Pantaloon was Desire Defrere, later for decades an official of the Met. and Celio was Hector Dufranne, who had played Garden's unhappy spouse in the first production of Debussy's Pelleas. Except for a far-seeing writer from the New Republic, the critics found the work "unsingable," and it had exactly one more performance in Chicago. When the company played it in New York, the reviewers jumped on it like coyotes on a crippled rabbit. (I should note that it was sung in French, Garden's preferred language and the one in which she recorded the Traviata aria.)

Oddly enough, New York was where the work had its greatest success some thirty years on. It was, if memory serves, the production that put the New York City Opera on the map, for it had been many a day since New York had seen an opera produced with the brilliance, the drama, and the ingenuity that Laszlo Halasz allowed it. It was the talk of the national operatic community, and even general magazines like Life took notice. It was in the repertoire there for a long time and I hope Miss Sills will consider reviving it. I saw it in the middle sixties and it was still an utter charmer. Looking at my playbill, I see that the cast was made up mostly of City Opera stalwarts. By then my old friend Larry Winters, the original Celio there, had gone off to Hamburg to stardom and a too-early death, but I note that the Smeraldina was a young woman named Tatiana Troyanos, who afterwards made a name for herself.

The performance offered here is the same that was available a while back on Angel-Melodiya. The participants are good solid performers with no standouts, which makes no real difference in a work of this kind, since be/ canto is not what is wanted. It is a performance in every way preferable to the only other one I know of on records--an effort by the Jugoslavian locals of Ljubljana, briefly available here on the Epic label.

Other MHS:selections for your considera­tion: MhS 3930/32 Prokofiev: Complete Moscow Radio Symphony Orch.; MHS 3981/83 Prokofiev: Complete Symphonies, Vol. 2, Nos. 4, 5, a

Other MHS:selections for your considera­tion: MhS 3930/32 Prokofiev: Complete nd 6, Moscow Radio Symphony Orch. _________ _

Review of The Love for Three Oranges page 61

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