fri 03/12/2021

The Love for Three Oranges, Grange Park Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Love for Three Oranges, Grange Park Opera

The Love for Three Oranges, Grange Park Opera

Prokofiev's fairytale is bizarrely sung in Hampshire in neither Russian nor English

“Art and love, these have been my life,” sings Tosca in Puccini’s opera. “Music or words first?” the Countess worries in Strauss’s Capriccio. Now in the third of Grange Park’s operas this summer we have the warring advocates of tragedy, comedy, melodrama and farce in Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges. Could it be guilt at its own idle detachment that draws country-house opera into the agony of self-reflective theatre? Well, Tosca is barely self-reflective – an excuse for a big aria and an off-stage cantata. But Prokofiev’s Oranges – like that other, and better, Strauss concoction, Ariadne auf Naxos – derives both humour and instruction from our lurking fear that all these stage passions, triumphs and disasters are mere trickery and greasepaint. And it does so in music that vibrates with energy and sardonic wit from first bar to last, music strictly devoid of serious agony.

The opera, like its source Gozzi play, is a spoof fairytale. A prince dying of melancholia finds nothing amusing except the sight of the evil fairy Fata Morgana flat on her back, for which indiscretion she condemns him to fall in love with three oranges. The oranges, when found, turn out to house three beautiful princesses, two of whom at once die of thirst, while the third is saved only by a bucket of water provided by the so-called Eccentrics in the audience (roughly, the untroubled theatre-lovers): and so on. The nuances come thick and fast. Yet, as in any good pantomime, narrative logic is never quite sacrificed to magical intervention; it’s merely speeded up by it. And speed is a strong feature of David Fielding’s production at the Grange: speed in the sense of stage choreography, and in the sense of quick-witted integration of hybrid elements. 

Fielding does his own designs, and their eclecticism fits the spirit of the score exactly; in fact a lot of the visual jokes are already in the stage directions. Some directorial clichés, like the inevitable cloned bearded doctors with stethoscopes, are after all justified by the story. Other modernisms, the princesses’ giant orange-juice cartons (“two for the price of three” – why not three for the price of two, by the way?), or the Dr Who phone box that whisks the Prince away to the wicked Creonta’s kitchen, are bang on the Prokofiev nail, if beyond his ken. The magic flashes and fizzes in the best pantomime tradition, and the fake audience groups are brilliantly organised, as well as sparklingly sung, on and off stage, not least in the set pieces – like the famous march and scherzo – which ultimately suggest Prokofiev was more at home in ballet than opera, for all the deftness of this particular specimen.

Musically there is a strong performance waiting in the wings here. The cast is too big to itemise, but Clive Bayley’s King of Clubs, Jeffrey Lloyd-Robert’s Prince, and Wynne Evans’s Truffaldino shouldn’t go unmentioned. Of three very nubile princesses, the survivor, Rosie Bell, hits off the delicious absurdity of the situation to a tee. Vuyani Mlinde’s top-hatted magician Tchelio and Rebecca Cooper’s tall, sexy Fata Morgana are a perfectly matched pair – an illusionist and his assistant gone to the bad. All clever, well-observed, well-sung portraits.

Leo Hussain, a young conductor I haven’t encountered before, is well on top of the score, without quite holding the lid on its volume, which sometimes makes life hard for his singers. But what’s hardest of all for them is the inexplicable decision to sing the opera in (rather bad) French, a language that has no relevance to either the work or its audience. Sure, it was premiered in French in Chicago; but that was for local reasons. This is a Russian opera, a comedy to boot, and the only sane language to sing it in in England is English. The audience might then manage to laugh in the right places, and much, much more often; because as well as being musically a treasure, The Love for Three Oranges is, or should be, very, very funny.

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French has everything to do with the opera - Prokofiev, as a respectable Russian in the 1920s, spoke French as a first language. The accents were weak, admittedly, but I rather enjoyed this. It added to the eccentricity of the whole production.

Just to clear up any misunderstandings, Prokofiev got a close friend, Vera Janacopoulos, to translate his own Russian text into French, which he knew well (but if you're Russian, French isn't going to be your first language, right?) - also puzzling, because he was doing it for the Chicagoans (but Scots-born Mary Garden, who was to take over there, was a great Melisande. Which confuses the pudding further). I agree with Stephen that it should perhaps be sung in the language of the host country as it's very texty and very funny, but there is at least a precedent for the French. But is Grange Park really calling it 'The Love OF Three Oranges'? I suppose the French title would give that precedent, though in Russian and English it's 'for, right?

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