cheat sheet: The Love for Three Oranges
Everything you need to know about Prokofiev's surreal, screwball fairytale for adults.
Sergei Prokofiev is one of the major composers of the 20th century: a Russian who studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory before making his name as a composer and pianist.
He is most famous for his ballet, Romeo and Juliet and his work for orchestra and narrator, Peter and the Wolf.
Like other great 20th-century composers, he played with harmony but his work isn’t dissonant or 'difficult' — it’s melodic, approachable and in this opera, lots of fun!
Prokofiev died aged 61 after a long illness, on the same day as Joseph Stalin.
Sergei Prokofiev photographed circa 1918.
The Prince is melancholy, tragic poetry to blame. Prescription? Laughter! While the court scrambles to amuse the prince, it's a witch that finally does the trick; tripping over and revealing her knickers. His laugh angers the witch, who curses the Prince with an obsessive love for three oranges. The Prince and his jester march off to find the oranges, kept in the kitchen of a murderous cook.
But not everyone is on the prince's side; the Prime Minister is plotting to kill him!
Does true love lie under that thick orange skin? Will the witch come back for revenge? Will the evil Prime Minister succeed?
In this farcical fairytale, you never know what's around the corner.
Who are the main players?
The King of Clubs: ruler of an imaginary Kingdom
The Prince: the King's son, struck down with melancholy
Princess Clarissa: the King's niece, next in line for the throne
Leandro: the Prime Minister
Pantaloon: friend and advisor of the King
Tchelio: a magician, protector of the King
Fata Morgana: a witch, protector of Leandro
Something to listen out for
Prokofiev’s music is energetic, clever and very accessible. Listen to how rhythm drives the action (the most famous example is that famous march. The characters are literally marching, but the music is also signaling the story moving inexorably on!)
A journalist perhaps best described the music of the opera, as he reviewed the dress rehearsal in 1921:
"Music like this has never come from the orchestra pit of the Auditorium. Strange combinations of sounds that seem to come from street pianos, New Year's Eve horns, harmonicas and old-fashioned musical beer steins that play when you lift them up... it sounds like the picture of a crazy Christmas tree drawn by a happy child," wrote Ben Hecht for the Chicago Daily News.
He observes two critics disparaging the music and concludes "perhaps ... music critics will fail to understand it and untutored [people] like ourselves will find in the hurdy-gurdy rhythms and contortions of Mr Prokofieff ... a strange delight. As if some one had given us a musical lollypop to suck and rub in our hair..."
Bold, colourful fun, from the brilliant mind of director Francesca Zambello. George Tsypin's kooky sets explore the fantasy world of this satirical fairytale, and Tania Noginova's costumes are larger than life.
Costume sketches for the Chorus, Princess Ninetta and The King of Clubs by Tania Noginova.
Prokofiev was making waves in America with his music when the Chicago Opera enquired if he might write them an opera. The composer accepted a commission to produce an opera based on The Love for Three Oranges — a satirical, fairytale play by Carlo Gozzi.
He wrote the libretto himself and composed the opera in just nine months, although its premiere was delayed by the death of Chicago Opera’s chief. The new artistic director promised to make it up to Prokofiev with a lavish production (it reportedly cost $100,000, and the composer conducted it himself).
At its 1921 premiere, critics were stumped, although the audience reportedly enjoyed it. One critic wrote: "The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it."
But it was a success, and before long, it was performed in Prokofiev’s homeland and across Europe.
- When Chicago Opera commissioned Oranges, citrus growers in Florida and California fought over advertising rights for the opera, wanting to hang placards advertising their fruit in the theatre
- Prokofiev and Stravinsky almost came to blows over The Love for Three Oranges. Sitting in on a meeting where Prokofiev played the score to an interested presenter, Stravinsky refused to listen to more than Act I, angrily declaring the composer was wasting his time writing operas.
- As a crowd-pleaser, Prokofiev arranged a simple version of the popular March, but wrote in his diary: "The process of denuding for the sake of simplicity is highly disagreeable".
- The composer died on the same day as Stalin, and the crowds mourning Stalin were so great, it was three days before anyone could remove Prokofiev’s body from his apartment.
The composer: Prokofiev. Russian. 20th century.
The music: Energetic, playful and full of character.
The big hit:
The setting: A fantasy, fairytale land.
The history: Critics weren’t sure what exactly this opera was: Bolshevik jazz? A big joke? Perhaps, as one critic wrote, this generation just wasn’t quite ready for it!
A quirky fact to impress your date: Citrus-growers in America fought over the rights to promote the new opera.