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SERGEI PROKOFIEV’S OPERA The Love for Three Oranges had its first performance in Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre on December 30, 1921. The story traces back to a 17th-century Italian fairy tale; the opera’s world debut in the U.S. was overshadowed by momentous events in Prokofiev’s native Russia.
Years later, part of the opera’s score came to represent the FBI. Later still, it encouraged a famed childrens’ artist to turn his talents to opera set design. Curious paths indeed for a controversial work that wonderfully incorporates a 1920’s blend of Dada, Surrealism and generally whacko performance art.
In May 1918, with Soviet permission, Sergei Prokofiev traveled eastward on the last Trans-Siberian Express to leave Moscow for many years. His travel to Vladivostok continued on to Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco.
Cleofonte Campanini, director of the Chicago Opera Company, commissioned Prokofiev to compose a satirical opera. The libretto arose from a play in the Commedia dell’Arte style written by 18th-century Italian Carlo Gozzi. Gozzi, in turn, had based his play on a fairy tale collected by 17th-century Italian Giambattista Basile, whose other works included the earliest known versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel.
When Prokofiev was done, his L’Amour des Trois Oranges was part Commedia dell’Arte, part avant guard Dada and Surrealism. The opera’s French language made complete sense: Prokofiev spoke next to no English, and he recognized that few American opera-goers understood his native Russian.
Like many “modern” works at the time, the Chicago debut wasn’t particularly well-received. Review comments included “Russian jazz with Bolshevik trimmings” and “As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it.”
In fact, The Love for Three Oranges wasn’t performed in the U.S. again until 1949. From then on, it gained popularity around the world, with plenty of performance-art nuances. For instance, as part of an English production in 1988, audience members were given scratch-and-sniff cards to match on-stage events, gunshots, the aroma of oranges and the like.
The plot is classic fairy tale: A Prince despondent from reading too much tragic poetry can be cured only by laughter. The king, his advisor Pantalone and magician Tchelio, both classic Commedia dell’Arte types, are on the Prince’s side. The king’s niece Clarice, who hopes to inherit the throne, and her lover, the oily Leandro, are aided by Fata Morgana, a witch, and servant girl Smeraldina, all hoping to do in the Prince.
The Prince rollicks with laughter when the evil Fata Morgana takes a tumble, revealing her bloomers. She, in turn, curses him with a love for three oranges. The Prince and court jester Truffaldino (another C della’A type) march off in search of these three.
During the intermission, let’s jump to The FBI in Peace and War, a CBS radio drama that ran from 1944 to 1958. Its theme was the March from The Love for Three Oranges, overlaid with a chanted L A V A, in honor of the program’s sponsor Lava soap.
The Prince and Truffaldino find the three oranges containing three princesses. There are complications a’plenty and the Prince falls in love with Ninette, Orange No. 3.
Second intermission feature: In 1982, Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera commissioned Frank Corsaro and Maurice Sendak, famed for Where the Wild Things Are, to produce L’Amour des Trois Oranges in its original French. This led to the wonderful book, The Love for Three Oranges: The Glyndebourne Edition, whence many of this item’s illustrations come.
Fata Morgana transforms Ninette into a giant rat. And then…. Or maybe you’d like the CD?
Rest assured, it all ends happily, and this is why I love the three oranges. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016