After the 1922 New York première of The Love for Three Oranges, Sergei Prokofiev wrote “What a press it had the next day! It was as if a pack of dogs had been suddenly let loose at me and were tearing my trousers to bits.” Opera Australia’s current revival of this same opera seems certain to escape any such critical censure, thanks to a stylish production, good singing by all the cast and great comic acting. It frequently left the audience in fits of laughter and one cannot ask for more of a work that aimed to avoid every kind of sentimentality.

Rosario La Spina (The Prince) and Catherine Bouchier (Princess Nicoletta) © Prudence Upton
Rosario La Spina (The Prince) and Catherine Bouchier (Princess Nicoletta)
© Prudence Upton

Francesca Zambello’s productions have frequently been staged by OA in recent years: these include the inaugural Harbourside production (Traviata in 2012) and a Carmen last shown in 2014. Her version of The Love for Three Oranges was seen at the Sydney Opera House even earlier (2005). The programme is conspicuously silent on how many outings it has had since then, but it certainly would have merited an intervening revival. For an audience surfeited with operatic tragedy, this is a welcome addition to the comic roster, normally showcased only through a handful of works by Mozart and Rossini.

Prokofiev’s satirical fairy-tale is much more anarchic fare and it stimulated a colourful and wacky response from Zambello. This was signalled at the start by the sight of an enormous inflated human figure on the top of George Tsypin’s frame-like set, with the doctors performing a series of indelicate procedures on it. Elsewhere, grotesque internally-lit plastic moulds abounded, whether as cooking utensils, insects or the cases of the eponymous oranges. Tanya Noginova’s costumes took retro elements (corsets and elaborate Elizabethan ruffs) and reimagined them in fantastical ways. Combine this with dancing cactuses and playing cards, an eight-armed-and-three-legged yellow freak, and brilliantly realised human-oranges (once the top half was removed, the rest fell down as the woman’s dress), and one realises that imaginations ran rampant here.

David Parkin (The King of Clubs) © Prudence Upton
David Parkin (The King of Clubs)
© Prudence Upton
One of the most zeitgeisty aspects of Prokofiev’s scenario was the metaoperatic element: the inclusion of characters reflecting on the nature of the opera, and more than occasionally intruding on the action. The Prologue opened with the chorus divided into five groups: those wanting tragedy, comedy enthusiasts, lyric lovers, empty-heads, and most important of all, the ten ‘ridiculous ones’ (ridicules in the original French), who were given appropriately risible clothing (variations in red, orange and white on a basic jumper-and-tie outfit), and camped up their performances outrageously. The other groups made occasional appearances in the first-tier boxes near the stage, commenting on the action (in itself, an echo of audience practices from long before Prokofiev’s day). All sections of the chorus were in fine voice and mastered the non-trivial choreography of the dance sequences within the opera well.

The opera has many grateful roles, but the two most prominent figures are probably the Prince and the court jester, Truffadino, who bear more than a few resemblances to the Tamino-Papageno pairing in The Magic Flute. Rosario La Spina's Prince was one of the survivors from the 2005 cast, and on the few occasions where the score permitted it, unleashed the warm, lyrical sound that he is known for. Kanen Breen was seemingly born to play the role of Truffaldino, in this production conceived as part-Chaplin (toothbrush moustache and enormous shoes), with two-tone hair so that from one side he appeared to be ginger. He is a superlative comedian and combined the vocal agility required of him with hilarious antics. David Parkin clearly relished the opportunity to ham up as the aged King of Clubs, constantly doddering and playing with his enormous ear trumpet. Adrian Tamburini was side-splitting in his drag cameo as the Cook; clad in a grotesque fat-suit, his interactions with Breen were the comedic highpoint of the evening.

Kanen Breen (Truffaldino) © Prudence Upton
Kanen Breen (Truffaldino)
© Prudence Upton

Antoinette Halloran was in powerful voice as the villainous but ultimately thwarted deity, Fata Morgana. By comparison with her melodramatic performance, Gennadi Dubinsky was rather wooden playing her benevolent counterpart, Tchelio. Pelham Andrews made a strong impression as the devil Farfarello, but Margaret Trubiano was slightly underpowered as the would-be-usurper Clarissa (clad in dominatrix gear), as was Andrew Moran as her fellow plotter Leandro. There were good cameos from Eva Kong and Catherine Bouchier as the short-lived princesses, and Julie Lea Goodwin was an endearing Ninetta. Positive mention should also be made of Luke Gabbedy's Pantaloon and Victoria Lambourn's Smeraldina. Anthony Legge marshalled the orchestra cleanly, and the players mostly came up to snuff (one slightly squally passage from the cellos aside). Tom Stoppard's snappy English translation contained plenty of witticisms: my favourite was when the citrus-fruit-obsessed prince sang “I’m dreaming of an orange Christmas”... what a hoot!

****1