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Three cheers for 'Three Oranges'!

Sydney Opera House
01/18/2005 -  and 22, 25, 28, January and 1, 4, 9, 12, February 2005
Sergei Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges
Bruce Martin (King of Clubs), John MacMaster (Prince), Elizabeth Whitehouse (Fata Morgana), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Leandro), Deborah Humble (Clarice), Jamie Allen (Truffaldino), Warwick Fyle (Pantaloon), Jud Arthur (Chelio), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Linetta), Sally-Anne Russell (Nicoletta), Ali McGregor (Ninetta), Arend Baumann (Cook), Richard Alexander (Farfarello), Catherine Carby (Smeraldina). Graeme Macfalane (Master of Ceremonies).
English translation of the composer’s libretto by Tom Stoppard
Francesca Zambello (director).
Opera Australia Chorus, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Richard Hickox (conductor)

A season of opera in Prokofiev’s day consisted of a heavy dose of tragedies relieved by a sprinkling of comedies. The tragedies nearly always dealt with ‘star-crossed’ lovers - one of whom succumbed to disease or jealousy, often with a well-directed curse to speed the victim on his, or (more often) her, way. In the comedies, on the other hand, the lovers succeeded in happy (although pleasurably delayed) union, with enough farcical elements along the way to allow the audience to laugh safely at their failings, but not enough to suspend their identification with them. A moral lesson, recited by full ensemble at the end, was often included for extra value.

Prokofiev’s ‘opera of the absurd’, The Love for Three Oranges, was a reaction to these formulaic creations. Although Jacques Derrida was not yet born when Three Oranges was written, and Prokofiev would never have heard the term ‘deconstruction’, it was this post-modern process that he applied to opera in 1919. His abilities as a creator of willful, unconventional, and heavily ironic music made him the ideal composer to do this.

His ‘deconstructionist’ aims were met by using four techniques. First, he exaggerated the farcical elements of the opera to such a degree that the audience cannot identify, or engage, with the characters. Second, he wrote the opera for a large ensemble who sing in an aria-free, declamatory style so that no character is sufficiently developed to win the audience’s sympathy. Third, he introduced, as members of the dramatis personae, an ‘audience’ made up of rival factions (‘Reasonable Spectators’, ‘Highbrows’, ‘Wits’, ‘Romantics’, ‘Lowbrows’, etc) who comment on, and try to influence, proceedings. Lastly, he borrowed commedia dell’arte elements to link his characters to the Jungian archetypes that the audience could recognize from traditional operas.

For this unusual opera to succeed, requires a witty, well-paced production, a large cast of accomplished singer-actors, and a conductor in total command of Prokofiev’s high-voltage score. It is a pleasure to record that in this Opera Australia production, all these requirements were met.

The historic significance of this production derives from the facts that it was the first time that the company had included this opera in its repertoire, that the production was totally new, that it was Richard Hickox’s first performance as Opera Australia’s Music Director, and that the production will be recorded by Chandos for their ‘Opera in English Series’ – the first recording of this opera in English.

The sets were appropriately bright and phantasmagorical. The first two acts, which deal with an infirm king and a prince suffering from ‘terminal hypochondria’, were located in a suitably clinical environment that was a cross between the set for a medical student review and a ward scene from ‘Carry on Doctor!’. We were treated to high-camp antics that took place on a shiny, bright green linoleum floor that would have gladdened the heart of any operating theatre sister.

The desert scene of the final two acts was spotted with the occasional prickly pear making it appropriately sparse to highlight the three huge oranges. Much to the audience’s amusement, the prickly pears came unexpectedly to life and joined in the action near the end of the opera.

Costumes and props were delightful. The ancient king walked (when it suited him) with the aid of a Zimmer-frame and held a gigantic trumpet to his ear to hear (when it suited him). The sick prince looked like a bandaged Michelin-tyre blimp in an oversize hospital bed. Even the trumpet player (actually a delightfully raucous bass-trombone), who announces the appearance of the herald in the prologue, arrived on stage in a wheelchair. The three oranges were exquisite, each consisting of an outer glass-like gourd that opened to reveal a vivid, orange-pleated skin from which a beautiful woman emerged.

The cast was uniformly strong. Two singers deserve special mention: John McMaster and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. The former sang the role of the Prince wonderfully well. The fact that the Prince was short, rotund, and balding only heightened the irony of the ageing, horizontally-challenged lead tenor. Teddy Tahu Rhodes’s glorious voice and stature threatened to steal the limelight whenever Leandro appeared.
Tom Stoppard has freely translated from the French and included many witty innovations of his own. The opera’s complicated, fast-moving plot benefits greatly from being sung in the vernacular. The presence of English sub-titles was helpful because, as anyone who has heard Dame Joan Sutherland sing will know, diction is not always a strong point of Australian singers.

The orchestra played superbly under Hickox. Opera Australia is greatly privileged to have this inspirational Musical Director.

Mark Selikowitz



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