The Love for Three Oranges (1919)


In 1918, Sergei Prokofiev, age 27, lit out from his native Russia to set the world on fire.  He convinced the officials of the newly proclaimed Soviet government that he could win friends abroad for the fledgling nation, and he was soon headed east on a train across his vast homeland.  He made his way through Vladivostok and Yokohama to America, giving his official debut in November in New York, where he had arrived two months earlier.  Though there were critical misgivings about his Bolshevistic political ties, there were no quibbles about the extraordinary quality of his musical talent, and he made a great success with his first recital.

Prokofiev enjoyed an even greater acclaim in Chicago a few weeks later when Frederick Stock conducted the Scythian Suite (which is featured as on of our YouTube links) and the Piano Concerto No. 1, with the composer as soloist.  He also came to the attention of Cleofonte Campanini, principal conductor and general manager of the Chicago Opera, who awarded Prokofiev a commission to compose a new opera for the company.  The timing was perfect.  Even before he left Russia, Prokofiev had been working on a libretto based on a fantasy by the 18th-century Italian satirist Carlo Gozzi, and the Chicago commission came just as he was preparing to begin serious work on the music. (The title, The Love for Three Oranges, derived not only from Gozzi’s play, but also from the title of a Russian theatrical journal, to whose avante-garde philosophies Prokofiev enthusiastically subscribed.)  Though the score was delivered promptly on October 1st, just as the contract for the commission specified, the premiere was delayed for more than two years.  After Campanini’s sudden death in December, misgivings about the project surfaced, and Prokofiev’s opera was pronounced unperformable by the interim administration.  The legendary Mary Garden was appointed to replace Campanini the following year-the first woman selected to head a major opera company, incidentally-and she determined that Prokofiev’s work would be staged.  There was a huge expenditure on the production, which Garden would not allow enterprising citrus growers from Florida and California to offset by using the event as a publicity vehicle, and the work was generally successful at its premiere.  When the Chicago troupe took its production to New York, however, it was received with little favor, and The Love for Three Oranges has since been resigned to the operatic curiosity status rather than to the regular repertory.

In writing of the satirical nature of the opera, Donald J. Grout noted its “merrily lunatic plot, which is well-suited to Prokofiev’s sharp rhythmic style of this period and to his talent for humor and grotesquerie.”  David Ewen offered the following summary of the story of The Love for Three Oranges: “Prokofiev’s opera is a play within a play.  A highly demonstrative audience of Cynics, Emptyheads, Glooms, and Joys watches the performance of a burlesque opera about a legendary Prince.  The young man, dying of gloom, can be cured only by laughter. A wicked sorceress, Fata Morgana, thwarts every attempt to lighten his spirits, but when she takes a ridiculous fall during a scuffle with the palace guards, the Prince laughs and is cured.  The sorceress now decrees that he must find and fall in love with three oranges.  When the Prince finds the oranges in a desert, he learns that each contains a beautiful Princess.  Two of the young women perish of thirst.  The Cynics of Prokofiev’s audience revive the third with a bucket of water.  After more trials, the Prince and Princess are united and the sorceress and her evil cohorts meet suitable justice.”  In this fantastic opera, Prokofiev ridiculed the conventions of the traditional theatre with absurd stage action and mocking music.  Lifted from its theatrical context as a concert suite, the music loses some of its sardonic implications, but still displays the steely brilliance and thrusting motor rhythms typical of many of Prokofiev’s early works.
The first of the movements in the concert suite, The Ridiculous Fellows, is assembled from several passages having to do with the Cynics or chudaki, a Russian word also implying an “eccentric” or “oddball”. The music depicts their futile attempts to make the Prince laugh.  The second movement, Infernal Scene, accompanies the
stage action during which Fata Morgana and the King’s Magician play a game with huge cards, the stakes being the Prince’s life.  The March, the most famous portion of the score, is placed at several points in the opera to suggest the cockeyed atmosphere of the royal court.  The Scherzo occurs twice in the opera-before and after the scene in which the Prince finds the Oranges.  The penultimate movement, The Prince and the Princess, comes in the opera immediately after the liberation of the third Princess from her incarcerating orange and the successful efforts of the chudaki to revive her with a pail of water. The concluding Flight, with the entire court dashing madly after the villains, recalls a frantic chase scene from a rollicking silent movie.

The second movement, from the evidence of the Boston premiere, speaks for itself to audiences.  It is one of the most rapt, transcendent inspirations of 20th-century music, and like the opening movement, is unabashedly romantic and filled with a haunting bittersweet emotion.  The finale is in the traditional rondo form.  Its theme is an ebullient dance melody that exudes some of the fiery spirit of a gypsy fiddler.

Charles O’Connell noted of this Concerto, “Prokofiev writes here from the heart, and from a profound intellectual appreciation of the resources upon which he draws and the territory upon which he enters . . . He is not ashamed that his music, while incidentally exploiting anew the resources of the violin versus orchestra, should speak eloquently of beauty and of the things that remain remote and hidden in the recesses of the human heart and mind.”

Leo Eylar

Program Notes by Dr. Richard Rodda


Sergei Prokofiev

(1891 - 1953)