Opera Philadelphia has a winner on its hands with Prokofiev’s comic opera The Love for Three Oranges, part of this month's Festival O. I had the pleasure of enjoying the second performance in the elegant old-style Academy of Music, just right for an opera that dips its toe into three centuries and leaps lightly into our own.

Jonathan Johnson (The Prince) and Barry Banks (Truffaldino) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Jonathan Johnson (The Prince) and Barry Banks (Truffaldino)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Director Alessandro Talevi, making his Opera Philadelphia debut, has given us a latter-day commedia dell’arte showpiece with a plot more ridiculous than The Magic Flute, and sight gags and vaudeville tricks that make us think less of opera and more of Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Yet in spite of its antic pacing and deliberately exaggerated theatrics, it’s an opera that engages us with a straightforward plot and memorable musical escapades by an underrated modern master.

Based on an 18th-century romp by the playwright Carlo Gozzi, The Love for Three Oranges is a fairy tale offered purely for enjoyment, but with sidelong winks to satirical and social commentary. The story revolves around a hypochondriac King (Scott Conner) whose only desire is to make his melancholy son, the Prince (Jonathan Johnson), laugh. Eventually, laugh he does (every “ha” captured in the score) but at the expense of a wicked enchantress, Fata Morgana (Wendy Bryn Harmer). The witch puts a curse on the Prince which will causes him to yearn for the love of three oranges.

Barry Banks (Truffaldino) and Katherine Pracht (Pincess Linetta) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Barry Banks (Truffaldino) and Katherine Pracht (Pincess Linetta)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Farfarello (Ben Wager), described as “a helpful demon” and arrayed like the aviator in The Little Prince, takes the Prince and his father’s clown, Truffaldino (Barry Banks), on a whirlwind trip to exotic lands. There, they ultimately encounter three large, egg-shaped oranges. The staging (and performance by these three men emulating a Piper Cub and its passengers in flight), not to mention the black-clad stagehands who dashed behind the singers carrying cumulous cloud cut-outs, has to be one of the most innovative and clever skits I’ve seen on stage, operatic or otherwise.

After misadventures with two of the oranges, the Prince opens the third, to find the Princess of his dreams, Ninetta (Tiffany Townsend), and after a minor setback or two, the sweethearts are reunited, the villains punished, and the fairy tale reaches a felicitous end.

Wendy Bryn Harmer (Fata Morgana) and Brent Michael Smith (Chelio) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Wendy Bryn Harmer (Fata Morgana) and Brent Michael Smith (Chelio)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Just about everything in Talevi's production is first-rate, from the pacing and choreography of the large crowd scenes, often involving Prokofiev’s famous march, to the dramatic integrity of the orchestra and to the splendid voices and acting skills of a dozen featured singers. All were notable and deserving of mention, but I was especially impressed by the four leading female roles: Harmer as the evil Fata Morgana, oh, what an evil creature; Amanda Bottoms (mezzo-soprano), spectacular as the shifty and cunning Smeraldina who tries to trap the Prince into marriage; Tiffany Townsend, lending depth and tremendous vocal power to her role as the sweet Princess in the orange; and contralto Alissa Anderson as Princess Clarissa, the king’s scheming niece, menacing in fox-hunting attire.

Zachary James (The Cook) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Zachary James (The Cook)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

In the pivotal role of the Prince, Johnson brought wit, subtlety and humor, whether wired to his sickbed, or striding boldly into the veldt in search of the tempting fruit. Banks as Truffaldino was in himself a recurring Leitmotif throughout the production with an agile tenor voice and excellent comic timing. Praise, too, to Zachary Altman as Leander, the traitorous Prime Minister, and Will Liverman as the King’s reliable jester, Pantaloon. Over-the-top funny was the superb bass, Zachary James, as the Cook, dressed as a very large chicken (kudos to Manuel Pedretti, costume design, for this behemoth among domestic fowls). James had every movement of that chicken down pat, a remarkable feat, and I say this as a former farmer’s daughter.

Throughout the production, only slightly over two hours in length, members of the Opera Philadelphia Chorus appeared as assorted Spectators, Comics, Idiots, Oddballs, Romantics and Tragics, along with tumblers and other acrobats. Conductor Corrado Rovaris led the orchestra with just the right balance of excitement, whimsy and reserve, revealing Prokofiev not as a harsh, industrial-strength chord-pounder of the Soviet era, but as a poet of imagination, subtlety, and great charm.

*****