Big hair, headless dancers, giant breasts rolling across the stage – a fairy tale never looked so surreal. Which is exactly the point of the National Theaterʼs penultimate production this season, Prokofievʼs LʼAmour des trois oranges. Buoyed by a spirited performance in the pit, a talented team has run this fractured fantasy to its whimsical extremes, with riotous results. If the edges are rough, the narrative occasionally less than clear and the humor bawdy, itʼs all in service of having a good time, which this piece definitely delivers.

Marie Fajtová (Ninette)
© Dasa Wharton

Commissioned during the composerʼs 1918 trip to the United States, and premiered three years later in Chicago (with Prokofiev at the podium), Three Oranges is a satirical take on an Italian fable whose roots go back to the Pentamerone. In the course of being cured of his hypochondria, a prince offends a witch who curses him with an obsession for oranges. This leads him to the palace of a sorceress, where he steals three magic oranges that contain fairy princesses. The prince falls in love with one of them, who manages to survive being turned into a rat by the avenging witch, becoming his bride.

Over time and distance, the satirical elements have not weathered well. Advocates who open the opera by arguing over the best form of theater, and a group of “ridicules” who hector them throughout the evening, donʼt pack much comic punch now. So stage director Radim Vizváry uses them mostly for slapstick effects and colorful commotion that add to the general sense of nod-and-a-wink humor. Vizváryʼs training and career in mime come through strongest in his use of an acrobatic troupe, Losers Cirque Company, which provides everything from the comic entertainment aimed at rousing the prince from his sickbed to broad shoulders that literally carry the supernatural characters on their wicked ways.

Jaroslav Březina (Truffaldino) and Aleš Briscein (Prince)
© Dasa Wharton

And what a set of supernatural characters! The horned demon Farfarello and the witch Fata Morgana arrive in menacing bursts of fiery red lighting and black dry ice smoke, dominating the stage. Veteran opera star Eva Urbanová is particularly good as the witch, giving what is surely the longest upskirt in opera history to inadvertently snap the prince out of his doldrums, then rolling in moments later atop a giant spider to curse him with Wagnerian doom and gloom.

Vizváry takes a different tack with the guardian of the three oranges, a lethal cook with three breasts – an obvious plastic attachment that the prince absconds with, which then become the oranges. Or in this case giant breasts, laboriously pushed onstage by the prince and his suffering companion Truffaldino. The non sequitur becomes even more bizarre when the fairy princesses start to pop out, wearing the areolas and nipples as hats. Itʼs more ridiculous than salacious, though the conceit certainly lends new meaning to lines like “How big it is!” and “How juicy it looks!”

For all that, the music is often more lively than whatʼs happening onstage. Three Oranges is packed with dazzling, rapid-fire interludes that call for concomitant visual fireworks, or at least some high-powered choreography. The Losers fall short in this regard, relying mostly on tired tropes like the headless dancers and stilt-walking, arguably at their best when theyʼre writhing on the floor around the witch and demon. Thereʼs plenty of movement from the other characters, though mostly unimaginative jumping and swaying, even for the famous march.

František Zahradníček (Tchelio), Csaba Kotlár (Farfarello), Losers Cirque Company
© Dasa Wharton

Natalia Kitamikadoʼs costumes are the highlight of the evening, unpredictable and provocative, especially an outré dress that turns the kingʼs scheming niece Clarice into a seductive female centaur. Kitamikado often works with set designer Boris Kudlička, who oddly goes the other way in this production, creating a faux courtroom with heavy materials in somber tones. As an anchor it allows the rest of the production to go wildly over the top, but otherwise one has to wonder what purpose is served by turning a regal court into a drab courtroom, more fitting for something like The Crucible.

Particularly with Urbanová in the cast, the production feels like a group of company regulars got together for a romp – durable tenors Aleš Briscein (Prince) and Jaroslav Březina (Truffaldino), lustrous soprano Marie Fajtová (Ninette), versatile contralto Jana Sýkorová, and stalwart basses Zdeněk Plech (King of Clubs) and František Zahradníček (Tchelio). Visiting singers Andrea Tögel Kalivodová and Artur Mateusz Garbas added creepy humor as the scheming Clarice and Leandro. The choral work was superb. And under the baton of British conductor Christopher Ward, the National Theater orchestra showed impressive skill and agility outside of its normal repertoire.

Finally, credit the production for being true to the composer's wishes. As Prokofiev said of his critics, “They found ridicule, provocation and burlesque. The one and only thing I attempted was to write an amusing opera.”