by Steven Pisano
Opera Philadelphia's recent production of Sergei Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges" was a frothy, fun concoction, less an opera than a zany musical comedy. Its source story had its origins in the commedia dell'arte, which Prokofiev, writing in the early 1920s, spiced up with a fair dose of absurdist surrealism.
In a nutshell, there is a handsome young Prince who mopes around in bed, his malaise brought on by reading too much serious poetry. The doctors in the court of the King of Clubs, the Prince's father, prescribe that he can only be cured by laughter. But though many in the kingdom try, none can make this sourpuss chuckle, until one day the witch Fata Morgana, who is involved sideways in a plot to kill the Prince, is knocked over and shows her underwear, which of course makes the Prince break out into an uproarious peal of laughter which finally breaks his grumpy mood. Pissed off at being laughed at, though, Fata Morgana curses the Prince to fall in love with three oranges.
Other silliness ensues until finally the Prince finds his true love, Princess Ninette, and all is right with the world again. To call this opera an utter work of fluff would be to overstate just how insubstantial the actual story is. And the music is not much better. The opera does contain the famous "March," which you'll know as soon as you hear it, but little else in the music is memorable (it is hard to imagine listening to a recording of it) and, strictly speaking since this is an opera, there are no real arias.
So why is it that, despite these weaknesses of Prokofiev and his work, this completely delightful production by Opera Philadelphia was so much darn fun, totally captivating the large audience, young and old?
The answer is that the performers and the production were first-rate throughout, all under director Allesandro Talevi. The costumes by Manuel Pedretti, and the wigs and make-up by David Zimmerman, were colorful and witty. The scenic design by Justin Arienti had just enough whimsy to denote the fairytale locales. But most of all, there was excellence in the performers from the principals down to the chorus members who played the townspeople and various other characters periodically filling up the stage.
Jonathan Johnson was a pleasant Prince, both early on moping in his bed, and later when adventuring across the seas to find his oranges. Barry Banks as the jester Truffaldino (a character name you may better know from "A Servant of Two Masters") was the most appealing of the characters, both puckish and sympathetic. Wendy Bryn Harmer was deliciously sinister as the witch Fata Morgana, and was matched in her benign evil by Brent Michael Smith as the sorcerer Chelio. None of the three princesses inhabiting the titular oranges had anything special to sing, so they mostly just did a cameo appearance.
And above all these fine performances, as well as others, the bass Zachary James stood out for his commanding and comical role as The Cook, who was the keeper of the "three oranges" the Prince had travelled the world to find. Dressed like a chicken with a toque, and bringing to mind the imperiousness of Julia Child, he actually laid an egg on the stage from a vent in his costume (which made all the kids in the audience roar). It was a brief but memorable performance that I doubt anyone who saw it will soon forget.
More photos can be found here.