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Summer Opera: Love for Three Oranges

Prokofiev, Love for Three Oranges, De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, June 2005So much good opera this summer. The next one on my list (Opera in the Summer 2005, June 2) was Prokofiev's strange and fun Love for Three Oranges, an opera I have never had the chance to see staged live (although I very much enjoyed the zany 1989 production from the Opéra de Lyon conducted by Kent Nagano on DVD). If only I had the time and money to go to Amsterdam, where De Nederlandse Opera is producing it this summer, in the original French version from 1921. Since I cannot go, here is a translated excerpt from someone who did: Christian Merlin's review (Prokofiev selon Pelly, June 15) for Le Figaro:

It's a French team who has scored a triumph at the Amsterdam Opera, and it's no exaggeration to say that they are doing it with a French work. Although at last year's Aix-en-Provence Festival they opted for the Russian version of Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges, De Nederlandse Opera has chosen the French libretto of the 1921 premiere, a pertinent choice that has the advantage of showing how much Prokofiev and Les Six had in common in terms of aesthetic concerns. Stéphane Denève, the most brilliant of our conductors under 40 years old, has nevertheless not entirely played that card. Close to Poulenc in the transparency and the popular language of the score's most Parisian pages, he falls into the trap of the artillery salvos fired off by the sizable orchestra: with his mane at attention and imperious gestures, he encourages the brass of the superb Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra to play large, where a more cutting clarity would have been more appropriate. It's true that, from having worked with Valery Gergiev, these virtuosic musicians must feel closer to the steel factories than to Peter and the Wolf.

This massive style, which would have suited Russian singing rather than French diction, was at least of a piece both with the less than intimate dimensions of the theater and with the blockbuster staging of Laurent Pelly. What astute work and fine rhythmic sense from the busiest of our stage directors! In this crazy fable taken from Gozzi, in which the commedia dell'arte was reinterpreted with Meyerhold's glasses and a newly born surrealism, the kingdom depicted is that of the King of Clubs, and it is at a game that the magician Tchelio loses against the formidable Fata Morgana. Pelly needed nothing else to see the key of his visual universe: all of the impressive sets of Chantal Thomas are made of gigantic playing cards, and their evolution and transformation makes us admire the Amsterdam Muziektheater's resources in stage machinery. It's a sort of revival of machine opera from the Baroque period. Certainly, the evening is not only about the spectacle, and the magic scenes are as troubling as the cook's episode is irresistable. But all in all, if we are seduced, we also feel overwhelmed by the monumentality of the effects in a work that perhaps does not demand that much. There is a lack of that bit of subtlety in the ironic distance.
Merlin praises Alain Vernhes as the King of Clubs, François Le Roux (heard here in Washington last November) as Trouffaldino and the Master of Ceremonies, and Sandrine Piau as Ninette. The best performance, however, according to him, was lesser-known tenor Martial Defontaine as the hypochondriac prince. There's another singer for us to keep our eye on. Jens heard conductor Stéphane Denève at work in March at the Kennedy Center, and we know that others are interested in his career, too. Here are some pictures of the production. Performances continue in Amsterdam until June 29.

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