Squeezed full of life – Prokofiev’s ‘ceaseless chain of contrasted incidents’

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In Act III of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, the Prince has found his true-love, the last of three fantastic oranges, Princess Ninetta, and saved her with a refreshing drink. ‘At last, a real fairytale with tunes that we can hum’ sing the commentators, the ‘Lyrics’, in Tom Stoppard’s translation of Prokofiev’s libretto. Except that this scene has been little of the sort.

This ‘love scene’, where an opera-goer might expect to hear something like a fully-developed ‘number’, has been – much like the rest of the opera – mosaic-like, fleeting, changeable. The opera’s sequences are ‘visions fugitives’, says Marina Frolova-Walker in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera, making clever use of the title of some characteristic early Prokofiev piano pieces.

This may be the initial difficulty for a first-time listener to the opera. Prokofiev’s score consists (quoting Frolova-Walker again) of ‘a long string…of roughly two-minute independent pieces, individuated by their texture, rhythm and melodic material.’ Many of these nuggety two-minute units are quite attractive, perhaps the ‘concession’ Prokofiev made to the Americans who were his opera’s first audience, but they ‘alter course or change to something new as soon as their impetus is exhausted,’ as Donald Mitchell says of some of the musical patterns in his review of a 1956 revival of the work. ‘Rhapsody rarely inflates a phrase so that it spreads beyond its own immediate confines.’[1]

So does an audience member have much to hang onto?

The Love for Three Oranges is already a strange operatic tale, a bit Magic Flute-like in its traces of philosophy, its cast of characters straight out of fantasy, card-games, commedia dell-arte and even outside the frame, as the chorus comments on and influences the plot.

The synopsis is printed elsewhere in this booklet, but in summary what do we have? A kingdom that is set to collapse unless the Prince is snapped out of his melancholy; a card game for the fates of the two kings (one of Clubs, the other his prime minister and antagonist, Leander King of Spades); a curse which compels the newly cheered-up Prince to hunt for three oranges which contain princesses; which are rescued from under the nose of a giant Cook; a further turn of events when the third orange, the Prince’s princess-love, is turned into a rat; and the intervention of the chorus who step out of their commenting role to divert the plot in the direction of a happy ending when faced with a couple of cul-de-sacs.

Donald Mitchell suggests that an audience might need to have seen this work to be able to listen to it: to understand how the ‘very character of the fairy-story – the ceaseless chain of contrasted incidents…permits – indeed demands’ the epigrammatic construction. Don’t worry: what Mitchell is saying could be taken as a compliment. This really is one opera that needs to be experienced in its theatrical totality.

But is it possible to point out listenable sections to a listener? What would you put on the Highlights album?

One might hold up for examination general features of the young Prokofiev’s style. His orchestration exhibits the clarity typical of the Russian school; the increased ‘modernist’ use of percussion even sharpens the lines. The harmony is often an extension of what might be found in the fantastic operas of Rimsky-Korsakov (1835-1904) or the ‘infernal’ moments of a ballet like The Firebird by another of Rimsky’s students, Stravinsky. Some of the melodies, such as the Little Devils’ ‘Hii, hii, hii’ chorus in the ‘Infernal Scene’, are as simple as ‘five finger exercises’ referring to the sorts of tunes given to beginner keyboard students, but others are inflected by chromatic harmonisations so that they don’t sound as simple as they actually are (as when, in Act IV, the Eccentrics lure Fata Morgana into a lock-up).

What might be hardest to come to grips with is the recitative-like nature of much of the vocal line. Interestingly, Prokofiev himself distinguished between recitative and aria in this work as when he instructed a translator of the French version of the libretto, Alexey Stahl, to add or take away as many notes as he liked in ‘recitative passages’. But it was the ‘Mussorgskian declamation’ that Stravinsky and Diaghilev most disliked when Prokofiev played the score through to these two Russian sophisticates in Paris in 1922. (‘Disliked’ may be an understatement. Stravinsky became ‘incandescent with rage’, wrote Prokofiev later, ‘hopping up and down like a sparrow…. we almost came to blows…’[2])

Mitchell’s pre-requirement of seeing the opera may be a very 1950s view; it’s not definite that contemporary listeners would have as much of a problem with Prokofiev’s ‘mosaic’. But Prokofiev was aware that ‘in this opera so much happens that my famous succinctness threatens to turn into an interminable prolixity.’[3] Fortunately, there are some more-regular, sustained units that an audience might hang its comprehension on.

After all, Prokofiev created an orchestral suite out of the longer spans. Granted these are mostly the orchestral interludes or mimed episodes – and the suite is not as voluminous as the symphony he created out of his next opera, The Fiery Angel – but they are worth looking out for.

First, there is the music that takes the opera into Act 2 sc.ii where Truffaldino has organised a series of entertainments that might cure the Prince of his melancholy. A soft tread begins quietly under Truffaldino as he despairs of the failure of his first attempts to amuse. Suddenly the trumpets boorishly blare out a wrong note until the whole orchestra modulates around them, climaxing a march that became so famous as a concert piece early on in Prokofiev’s career that it threatened to become ‘as “unpleasantly fashionable”,’ in the composer’s words, ‘as Rachmaninov’s Prelude’ (citing a fellow Russian’s brush with one-hit wonderdom).

Then there is the mercurial section of the suite called ‘Flight’, which is the music that accompanies the comical chase toward the end of the opera when the villain Leander and his allies, threatened with the noose, make a run for it; and the travelling music that bookends Act III sc.ii (a neat three-part structure when you see it on stage and factor in the intervening music of the giant Cook and his/her lumbering tuba accompaniment).

The other movements of the suite were created, as Prokofiev conceded, as ‘cut and pastes’.

The very first number ‘Les Ridicules’ (The Eccentrics) uses the very beginning of the opera, a regular fanfare if you could edit out the crushed intervals and glittering glissandos. Then music from much further on: Truffaldino’s characteristic flute music, and the music from Act IV, sc.i where the Eccentrics lock Fata Morgana up. The fact that Prokofiev could create a successful musical whole out of segments of music heard far apart in the stage work testifies, surely, to his own sense of a long-range unity. The unity is in his head; ideas can be related across vast spans of time because they spring from the same internal pool of ideas.

And then there are the very clear tableaux or ‘discrete’ scenes, such as the ‘Infernal Scene’ where the magician Chelio (backing The King (of Clubs)) and the witch Fata Morgana (backing Leander, the King of Spades) play at cards for their protectees’ ‘fates’. Or, the scene with the Cook (already mentioned) which might not have turned out quite so ternary in feel if Prokofiev had stuck to his original idea of ‘a different orchestration for the repeat of the entr’acte scherzo’, but which ended up becoming a rare instance of close reminiscence in the whole score.

And, quite apart from the suite, let’s look at that love scene referred to earlier. For a rare passage the Prince has a long-ish monologue, a recitative (‘We’re alone, at last, my marmalade, my dessert…’) that turns into a jogging arioso (‘What’s underneath that lovely orange peel?’), but even this lasts only seconds until he realises that the orange is a princess, and out steps ‘Ninetta’. Passionately the Prince arches up over an octave to sing of how he has long looked for her, but she interrupts to say she is parched and dying, with a ‘repeat’ of the melody the other two princesses, now dead, have sung – a rare 16-bar unit. For no more than 10 bars then they have a duet, until Some Eccentrics burst in, urgently calling for something to quench her thirst. There is constant switching, or ‘estrangement’, as the playwright Meyerhold might have called it. The Princess continues in her waif-like Andantino as the Prince makes ‘heroic’ pronouncements (‘Yes, nothing could come between me and my desire for you, my sweetheart’). The scene has some moments to go, but already the Lyrics are happy that at last they have ‘a real fairy tale with tunes that we can hum’, recalling a melody from the first minute of the opera. Of course, you might have to have a composer’s-eye view of the opera to make the association between this melody and the melody (in the Prologue, more than an hour ago) with which the Lyrics made the claim that they are ‘the true opera buffs’. But such is the span over which Prokofiev creates associations.

Donald Mitchell, in his 1956 review, expressed concern about the fragmentary nature of this work but pointed to the way Prokofiev’s chorus (with its internal factions) introduces, comments on, and influences the plot. He considered the chorus a frame sanctioning the work’s mutable nature. But maybe it’s nothing so controlling, and the work’s ‘fragmentary nature’ is a positive virtue.

Prokofiev based his libretto on an adaptation by the avant-garde Russian theatre director, Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) of an 18th century scenario by Carlo Gozzi, which had been conceived as part of a campaign to revive the traditional improvised Italian comedy of the masks, the Commedia dell’arte. Meyerhold aimed to relieve Russian theatre from what he saw as the tiredness of Stanisklavskian naturalism (and achieve something like the freshness of the Commedia). For that reason, at other times he taught actors disinhibiting physical exercises to allow the welling up of true instinctive responses. He came up with the sort of ‘alienation techniques’ that Brecht is credited with, disconcerting shifts in focus that alerted audiences to the artifice of theatre and kept their minds engaged. Creating this sort of emotional and intellectual engagement has been a feature of theatre for the past century. It’s why contemporary scripts tend toward swift exchanges rather than long speeches; they keep everyone (including the actors) on their toes.

In his Love for Three Oranges Meyerhold created an ever-present collection of commenting clowns out of what, in Gozzi, had merely been an Act II debate about theatrical aesthetics between Leander, Clarissa and Brighella (a character removed by Prokofiev). Prokofiev turned this into a full-on chorus. But in other respects also – his constant ‘contrasted incidents’ – he was in line with Meyerhold’s enlivening intentions.

In his book, The Empty Space, British director Peter Brook, an admirer of Meyerhold, calls Grand Opera ‘the Deadly Theatre carried to an absurdity’. What’s his beef? That opera is a theatre of generalised emotion? pitch and tempo straightjacket the ‘actors’ as surely as repetition and traditionalised gestures blocked access to the pit of authentic emotion at Stanislavsky’s theatre? conventions stifle the spontaneity that is the true source of wit?

Prokofiev’s Oranges may be the one opera that rebuts Brook’s accusation. And not just because it actually is funny. Rather than long, logical passages of musical construction that risk being soporifically entrancing, there’s a constant shifting of Prokofiev’s musical focus. The singers must still sing the prescribed notes but there is no time to linger or drift into settled emotion. There may be no ‘Flower Duets’ or ‘Liebestods’ but the music is fleet; it turns on a dime; performers (and listeners) must stay awake. The liveliness has a lot to do with that very epigrammatic construction that Mitchell thought was a problem.

So yes, we couldn’t say that Oranges is deep – we will never get those romantic tunes the Lyrics want to go away humming. And there may not be enough sustained passages to create a ‘highlights’ album. And you might still need to see the opera before you can enjoy it fully on disc. But even after 90 years, Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges is possibly the freshest piece of theatre you’ll find in the standard operatic repertoire. And that is an historic achievement.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2016

 Gordon Williams is an Australian librettist and writer on music based in Los Angeles. This article first appeared in an Opera Australia program booklet for a production using Tom Stoppard’s translation of Prokofiev’s text, June-July 2016.

[1] D. Mitchell: ‘Prokofiev’s “Three Oranges”: a Note on its Musical-Dramatic Organisation’, Tempo, no.41(1956), 20–24

[2] Sergey Prokofiev Diaries, 1915-1923:Behind the Mask, Translated and Annotated by Anthony Phillips, Cornell University Press, NY 2008, p.680

[3] Sergey Prokofiev Diaries, p.371

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