Wang Love

Severance Hall
November 29 – Friday at 8:00 p.m. 

November 30 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 
December 1 – Sunday at 3:00 p.m.

Suite from The Love for Three Oranges

Sergei Prokofiev  (1891-1953)
arranged 1921-22, from the opera composed 1919

At a Glance

Prokofiev composed his opera The Love for Three Oranges (Lyubov k tryom apelsinam” in Russian) in 1918-19.  The Chicago Opera accepted the work’s commission and gave the world premiere on December 30, 1921.  With Prokofiev himself conducting, the opera was sung in French and presented as “L’amour des trois oranges.”  In 1923, the composer derived a six-movement concert suite from the opera’s music; the suite was premiered on November 29, 1925, in Paris.  

The suite being heard this weekend runs about 15 minutes in performance.  Prokofiev scored it for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (tubular bells, xylophone, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, bass drum, side drum, tambourine), 2 harps, and strings.

The Lake Erie Opera Theater presented Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges in September 1965, with members of The Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Michael Charry, at Severance Hall.  The orchestral suite, or movements from it, have been performed on several occasions over the years, most recently when Stephane Deneve conducted the suite at Severance Hall in October 2016.

About the Music

Prokofiev’s first opera, Maddalena, was a one-act melodrama on the model of Strauss’s Elektra.  His second, The Gambler, was a strongly modernist version of a story by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  Neither of these were performed, the latter because it was ready for production just as the 1917 Revolution began to break out in the streets of Petrograd.

Before Prokofiev left Russia, in the spring of 1918, he was given a libretto by the great theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold called The Love for Three Oranges.  This was derived from a play that the Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi had created in 1761, titled L’amore delle tre melarance, in which Commedia dell’arte characters constantly intervene in an absurd folktale about a King who learns that only laughter will cure his sick son. 

Having reached New York in November 1918, Prokofiev gave a piano recital in Aeolian Hall that created a sensation and led to a contract from the Chicago Grand Opera to stage The Love for Three Oranges.  The music was composed quickly, but there were the usual delays in bringing it to the stage, by which time Prokofiev had moved on to Paris, where he saw a better future for himself and his music.  He returned to Chicago in 1921 to conduct his opera’s premiere, where it was well received.  

A performance in New York soon thereafter aroused a barrage of hostility, however.  Very successful performances in Leningrad and Moscow, in contrast, established the opera as one of Prokofiev’s major works, and it has become in our own time by far the most widely performed of all his operas.  The opportunities it offers to inventive directors and designers are irresistible — in terms of its fantastical story, enormous opportunities for visual interest, musical variety and pizzazz, and all-around fun and daring.

As soon as the opera was complete, Prokofiev planned a suite for piano with movements drawn from the opera, with an orchestral suite to follow.  This was not done until his return visit to America in the winter of 1921-22, however, and there was no performance of the suite until November 1925 in Paris.  The first performance in Moscow was given in 1927 by the “democratic” (conductorless) orchestra called Persimfans.

The Music

The music is engagingly sparky throughout the opera, full of gross humor, especially for the clownish Commedia dell’arte characters.  The suite’s opening movement is drawn from various scenes, including the first bars of the opera and a playful march that introduces Prokofiev’s mock-classical style.  In the second movement the King’s sorcerer, named Celio, and Fata Morgana, working for Leander, the King’s enemy, play three rounds of cards.  Celio loses. This is quite correctly headed “Infernal Scene” or “Scene in Hell.”

The March and Scherzo are both short movements, the March recurring throughout the opera and heard for the first time when Truffaldino attempts to entertain the Prince and make him laugh.  The Scherzo symbolizes the storm that helps transport the Prince and Truffaldino in their quest for the three oranges, kept by the evil witch Creonta.  Here the orchestral virtuosity betrays Prokofiev’s debt to Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky (particularly Stravinsky’s musical styling in the ballet Pétrouchka).

Out of the three oranges, once the Prince finds them, emerge three Princesses, the first two of whom die of thirst.  The third is saved by a group of Eccentrics (or Ridiculous People), who send her a pail of water.  The Prince and the Princess attempt a love duet, but are constantly interrupted.  The fifth movement of the suite offers up the thirst music (viola solo and divided strings), the recognition music (horn solo) and the interrupted love music (beginning and end). 

In the final scene, all the characters who had conspired against the King are condemned to death, but at the last moment Fata Morgana appears and opens a trapdoor through which the malefactors all escape.  This movement provides the final music of the opera (cruelly testing the string section of any orchestra), while the Prince and Princess live happily ever after — of course.

—Hugh Macdonald © 2019