The story of one masterpiece. Opera Buffa “The Love for Three Oranges”

Today, April 23, on the birthday of Sergei Prokofiev, we suggest recalling the history of the creation and stage life of his comic opera, “The Love for Three Oranges”, written in 1919 in the United States. This opera has everything: a parody of traditional opera, an attempt to use the forms of commedia dell'arte, and good "theatrical hooliganism", rare for an opera work.

A bright explosion of fun and laughter in the midst of wars, epidemics and world cataclysms, as "The Love for Three Oranges" became, emerged and not without reason. In Russia in the early 20th century, the culture of laughter was experiencing a kind of renaissance.

There was a dramatic increase of interest in the eccentricity of a knockabout comedy In Europe and Russia at that time. Vladimir Mayakovsky was fascinated by it (“Mystery-Bouffe", 1918). Russian culture was passionate about the Italian commedia dell'arte, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Nikolai Evreinov created their theatre on its basis.  The world of masques inspired poets, writers and playwrights. Since 1914, Meyerhold had been publishing a magazine called “Love for Three Oranges”.

The genre of this play by Carlo Gozzi is fiaba, a tragicomic tale. There are practically no lines that characters pronounce, there is only a narration of the plot, and the text itself was spoken impromptu and acted out by the actors in the tradition of commedia dell'arte.

It is not easy to narrate the plot of this opera, similar to a fairy tale, but the scheme is as follows. The son of the King of Clubs is sick with a hypochondriac disease, and only laughter can cure him. The King arranges festivities, First Minister Leander and Princess Clarice, the King's niece, try to interfere with the "cure" and want to kill the Prince to take the throne. The prince is protected by the wizard Chelius and Leander is protected by the witch Fata Morgana.
After Fata Morgana falls and accidentally makes the Prince laugh, she puts a "love of three oranges" curse on him: the Prince is obsessed with three oranges and will not rest until he finds them. After surviving many adventures, the prince returns with Ninette, one of the princesses imprisoned in the oranges. Fata Morgana helps the traitors escape and disappears herself.

There are three groups of characters in the opera:
The main characters of the tale are the King of Clubs, the Prince, Leander, Clarice, the jester Truffaldino, Pantalone, and three princesses of oranges.
The magical heroes are the wizard Chelius, the witch Fata Morgana, and the devil Farfarello.
External commentators and monitors Outside commentators and onlookers – tragedians, comedians, lyricists, rattle-brained and cranks.

At the beginning of the opera, some demand tragedies, others comedies, others lyrical romantic dramas, and others farces. In the end, the cranks kick everyone off the stage and promise to show the "real" and "matchless" play – "The Love for Three Oranges", mixing everything in the tale - tragedy, comedy, lyrical drama and farce.

“The Love for Three Oranges” was so unusual that everyone began to look for hidden meanings in it – trying to figure out who Prokofiev was laughing at: the audience, Gozzi, the opera genre or those who cannot laugh? The composer answered these questions: "I was simply composing a cheerful play".
The word "performance" is important here. From the very beginning Prokofiev really thought in terms of theatrical action, calibrating each scene so that it was dynamic, and with the help of remarks in the clavier the entire stage direction is actually prescribed: how the characters behave, from which backstage they emerge - everything is very detailed.

Musicologists call Sergei Prokofiev's score quite compact. The opera has a short action: a prologue and 10 scenes. The frequent changes of scenery are due to the regular renewal of the action location. Prokofiev himself developed the libretto of the opera. The music was completed by October 1919. Boris Anisfeld, a former member of the artistic group “Mir Iskusstva”, who had moved to America a little before Prokofiev, made the design,  the composer was conducting. The press was restrained, but Sergei Sergeevich was pleased to note in his diary that the audience laughed a lot during the performance.  And this was the main thing. The composer spoke about his innovative and flamboyant creation: "People tried to understand who I was laughing at: the audience, the author of the fairy tale or people without a sense of humour. They found laughs, challenges and exaggerations in the opera, but I simply created a funny performance".

"The Love for Three Oranges" is one of the most cheerful and vivacious operas of the 20th century. The rapid change of differently characterized and at the same time sharply delineated episodes creates a continuous flow of music and a fascinating rhythm to the performance. All comedic principles are deliberately sharpened in the opera, and grotesque and exaggeration predominate.

Prokofiev not only distorts the images and feelings of all the characters, but also maximally exaggerates the emotions and importance of the simple events that have occurred. All this is due to the composer's use of certain musical means. To understand this opera better, on should imagine how “The Love for Three Oranges” stood out in the general operatic landscape of the time. The public adored the psychological dramas of Puccini and the Verists, the expressionist dramas of Richard Strauss, and still worshiped the genius of Wagner. And suddenly a reckless theatrical action, written by Prokofiev without any regard for operatic fashion appears on the stage. Instead of psychology, he proposes masques, performance and knockabout comedy.

The Russian premiere of this opera by Prokofiev was just over four years away from the world premiere. After relative success at the Chicago Opera, for which “The Love for Three Oranges” was commissioned, Sergei Prokofiev tried to interest European theatres in his work. It took several years for the composer's fame to grow stronger and the score of “Love for Three Oranges” was requested by the Cologne City Theater, the Berlin Staatsoper, the theatres of Mainz, Cincinnati and the Leningrad State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater (now the Mariinsky Theater). Prokofiev considered the Leningrad production of “The Love for Three Oranges” to be the most successful stage interpretation of his work. In 1927, the opera was staged at the Bolshoi Theatre – since then the production of “The Love for Three Oranges” hasn't left the stage since. It is not just an interesting rarity, but one of the most popular Russian operas of the 20th century.
The opera was staged at the Leningrad Maly Opera and Ballet Theater (1964), the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater (1991, directed by A. Petrov, the production was restored in 2022), and the Moscow Bolshoi Theater (1997, directed by P. Ustinov). Abroad, performances in Berlin (1968, Komische Oper Theater, directed by Walter Felsenstein), Milan (1974, La Scala Theater, directed by Giorgio Strehler) and Munich (1991, directed by Yuri Lyubimov) stand out.

The play was so beloved by audiences that its productions are still relevant today.  In recent years it has been staged by Georgy Isaakyan at the Natalya Sats Theater; by Dmitry Bertman at the Helikon Opera; the productions of Alexandre Titel at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater and Philip Grigoryan at the Perm Opera and Ballet Theater are popular with the audience.

We invite you to listen to the march from the opera "The Love for Three Oranges" by Sergei Prokofiev that is performed by the orchestra of the Brussels Royal Conservatory under the baton of Désiré Defauw.

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