The Netherlands Opera’s revival production of Prokofiev’s L’amour des trois oranges is sweet, juicy, and just a bit bitter in the right moments.

© Hans van den Bogaard
© Hans van den Bogaard

This production presents Prokofiev’s piece in the original French with Dutch and English supertitles. At its first performance in Chicago in 1921, Prokofiev’s opera was presented in French rather than Russian. French is a sensible choice for this region. The French libretto is Prokofiev’s own adaptation of avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s translation of Carlo Gozzi’s L’amore delle tre melarance, an 18th-century defense of the commedia dell’arte tradition. Within The Netherlands Opera’s production, the principals in Prokofiev’s satirical piece are finely presented as cartoonish caricatures with nods to the commedia dell’arte acting style.

The absurdist plot of L’amour des trois oranges centers around a hypochondriac prince crippled by melancholy. With the aid of the slimy prime minister Léandre, the spoiled rotten Princesse Clarice vies for the throne. The aging King, fearing for the fate of his realm, attempts to cure his son with laughter; he and his loyal aide Pantalon enlist Trouffaldino, a jester. The King, Pantalon and Trouffaldino’s efforts are hampered by the results of a magician’s card game between Tchelio and the grotesque Fata Morgana. When the Prince finally laughs, Fata Morgana curses the Prince to fall madly in love with three oranges. He and Trouffaldino then travel to the hellish kitchen of the sorceress Creonte, where the oranges are guarded by a terrifying and powerful cook.

At its surface, the piece is another fairytale for adults in the commedia dell’arte tradition, but Prokofiev’s complex and entertaining farce employs many layers of satire. Prokofiev ridicules the fairy-tale opera tradition of the Russian Symbolists and Wagnerites, the aristocracy, his contemporary musical canon of Verdi and Beethoven, and the demands of the audience. Some productions paint the piece as greyscale Soviet dirge, detracting from the beauties, wonders and surprises in the opera. However, this was a version of Prokofiev’s complex opera in brilliant technicolor.

Laurent Pelly’s elegant sets are based on decks of cards. Different spaces are indicated using the different sides of the cards. The Prince’s hypochondriac lair is built from empty boxes of cards filled with boxes of pills and drops. Costumed in black and white, the courtiers of the House of Clubs are an essential part of the scenery. Their angularly artificial movements in processions create a stifling atmosphere and intense pressure; all eyes are on the Prince during Trouffaldino’s fêtes. In contrast to the stuffy black and white court, magical realms are indicated with brilliant and saturated color.

Breaking the fourth wall, the prologue begins with a shocking brawl between advocates of different dramatic styles demanding entertainment from the librettist. At times, these groups – Les Tragiques, Les Comiques, Les Lyriques, Les Ridicules and Les Têtes Vides – comment on the action of the principals in the manner of a Greek chorus, but they also interfere in the drama directly as a chorus ex machina. The action of the choruses is structurally critical, and the chorus of the Netherlands Opera characterized each of these groups sharply and effectively, contributing much humour and excitement.

Within this house of cards, the principals are presented as cartoonish caricatures. Expertly portrayed by French bass Philippe Rouillon, Le Roi de Trèfle is, at the surface, a caricature of tragedy and power, but Rouillon’s portrayal of this character is also sensitive and moving. The King’s opening scene in which he lugubriously frets over the fate of his kingdom and the scene in which the Prince nearly strikes the King were particularly finely executed. Mezzo-soprano Letitia Singleton cut a fine form as the spoiled rotten Princesse Clarice in a pastel pink fin de siècle gown, but her presentation of Clarice’s murderous threats was a bit too rosy, not quite nasty enough.

Ukrainian tenor Sergei Khomov triumphed as Trouffaldino. His Chaplin-esque presentation of Trouffaldino is well-seasoned, and his flexible voice suits this type of comic role particularly well. His mock-romantic duet with Lukas Jakobski’s gargantuan Cuisinière was simply priceless.

Anna Shafajinskaia was in top form as the grotesque Fata Morgana. Shafajinskaja used her powerful voice particularly effectively in Fata Morgana and Tchelio’s fateful card game and in her curse scene. Her chorus of demon minions is fittingly bizarre and grotesque.

Martial Defontaine has an exceptionally beautiful tenor voice. His costume as the orange-haired Prince in a simple brown coat over pyjamas recalls Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. Defontaine’s hypochondriac wailing was appropriately stressful, and he emphasized fragments of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in his violent seizures of laughter. His mock-lyric pining over the oranges and the near-Liebestod duet with Ninette were presented with both exaggerated lyricism and great sincerity.

The Princesses of Orange were each remarkable. In her company debut, mezzo-soprano Florieke Beelen sang gorgeously as the doomed Linette. Soprano Julia Westendorp presented herself well as Nicolette, and Elizabeth Cragg sang Ninette with a stunning lightness and subtlety.

The Netherlands Opera’s revival of Prokofiev’s L’amour des trois oranges features an outstanding cast of singers well suited to their roles, and is well supported by the Residentie Orkest under the energetic leading of Tomáš Netophil. Laurent Pelly’s sets are monumental and impressive. Laura Scozzi’s choreography is evocative and compelling. Beyond the sum of these parts, this production features a wealth of detail, color and surprise. Details will appeal to those with tragic, comic, and lyric preferences, and also those with none. It is well worth seeing.

*****