Sometimes it's a horserace, culturally speaking, to determine who has less of a sense of humor, the Germans or the Russians. Both cultures, at least to those a bit further west, can seem pompous, authoritarian and, well, dour. Musically speaking, there's nothing quite like the bombast of Richard Wagner, where the audience can typically feel they've been clubbed about the head and shoulders with enough chromaticism and general operatic angst to last a lifetime--and that's only after the Prelude to Tristan. Russia, despite its trials and tribulations, somehow produced a putatively lighter touch, at least at times, in the operatic realm, especially for composers working in the post-Tsarist, early Bolshevik era. Though all of these composers had to toe the proletariat line, the best of them were able to inject some pungent social commentary and exciting harmonic language into their work. Certainly Sergei Prokofiev stands at the apex of this crowd, a composer able to craft long, languid lines of melodic perfection suddenly poked and prodded by machine-like staccatos and unexpected tritones and minor seconds. There's humor aplenty in Prokofiev's charming surrealist fable The Love for Three Oranges, a piece that manages to combine a Daliesque ethos and Commedia dell'Arte tropes into a seamless whole that is bracing and very, very unique.
Those familiar with the musical version of Mel Brooks' The Producers may remember that that show opens with the giant, thudding sound of Max Bialystock's latest musical "Funny Boy!" going down in flames. "Funny Boy!" was a musicalization of that most excellent source material for a musical comedy, Shakespeare's Hamlet (and never mind that Hamlet actually was musicalized in 1976 in a legendary flop called "Rockabye Hamlet," and, no, I'm not kidding). The Love for Three Oranges precursors those two efforts by a half century or so, but contains one salient thing in common with them--we have a morose, despondent heir to the throne who manages to find the way to "closure" through theater. Luckily, Oranges opts for a happy ending, but not before a series of strange and quirky adventures besets The Prince, culminating in him releasing three princesses from three giant oranges (hence the title).
In a way, though, I'm getting ahead of myself, because Prokofiev starts Oranges with a very funny Prologue in which various "members of the audience" rise and demand different kinds of entertainment for the evening's festivities. One group wants comedy, another lyric drama. That sets up a group that appears throughout Oranges, a kind of Greek Chorus in reverse called The Ridiculous People. Several of the main characters in Oranges are culled from the ranks of Commedia dell'Arte, with, for example, court jester Truffaldino a version of Pulcinella. All of this plays out as a literal game of cards: the Prince's father is The King of Clubs, and, in one of the most provocatively staged scenes in this particular production, court magician Tchelio and evil witch Fata Morgana decide the fate of the Prince in a game of high stakes poker. With the Ridiculous People, the hommages to Commedia dell'Arte, and, most of all, with Prokofiev's trenchant musical language commenting from within and without the story itself, The Love for Three Oranges may be the first meta-opera, a piece that manages to comment about itself and its art form as it prances merrily along its mad way.
Amsterdam's Netherlands Opera capitalizes on all of this patent insanity in one of the most imaginatively staged productions of this piece I've witnessed. The card motif is woven beautifully into the set design, with huge playing cards forming the backdrops and even some costume designs based on the backs of the cards. As inventive and imaginative as this is, it occasionally produces unfortunate shadows on the stage which can mask singers' faces for a moment or two.
Oranges' at times strident musical language can be challenging for even the most accomplished singers, but the principals in this cast all do fine work. Bass Alain Vernhes has a suitably doleful tone as the worried King of Clubs, and tenor Martial Defontaine is fleet and expressive as The Prince. Natascha Petrinsky as the Machiavellian Princess Clarice is a delight, matched evil plot for evil plot by her accomplice Francois Le Roux as the Prime Minister. But it's Sir Willard White as Tchelio and especially Anna Shafajinskaja as Fata Morgana that command the stage effortlessly in this production, aided by their very theatricality and the amazing mise en scenes that director Laurent Pelly (who also did the fabulous costumes) creates for them.
The Love for Three Oranges manages to be madcap and heartfelt at the same time. Completely presentational and self-aware, it nonetheless has an almost ironic simplicity at times that keeps it from being over arch or too bitingly sarcastic. Like the best of Prokofiev's music, it's pungent without being too caustic for its own good.