Thursday, December 19, 2013

House of Cards: The Love for Three Oranges in Wiesbaden

Uneasy lies the head… Act I, scene 1. Photo © Lena Obst
Prokofiev's L'Amour des Trois Oranges has been confusing many and delighting some since its premiere in 1921. (As a clarifying note: the text was translated from Russian into French for its first performance; given in Wiesbaden in German as Die Liebe zu den drei Orangen, with the original Любовь к трём апельсинам on drop curtains.) At that time in America, Michael Pisani notes, "Modernist techniques in other arts were not unheard-of, but were considered grossly inappropriate for the opera house." To complaints about a lack of singable tunes and suspicions that Prokofiev was (gasp!) poking fun at opera audiences, the composer responded that he sought simply to create a diverting piece. Both the irreverent text and the multilayered score, however, would seem to belie such a facile summing-up. It's easy to see the self-absorbed prince and his clever sidekick, not to mention the warring magicians, the fragile princesses, and the cook with the deadly soup ladle, as parodic send-ups of operatic archetypes, while the warring audience factions of the prologue who constantly characterize the piece as being insufficiently comic, tragic, or romantic, are almost impossible not to read as a commentary on opera and theater audiences. The current run at the Staatstheater Wiesbaden, of which I saw Tuesday's performance, boasts a crisp orchestral reading and a clever production, but in it, critique and comedy seem like strange bedfellows.

Zsolt Hamar conducted the orchestra in a reading of the score that was clean, light, and attuned to the singers. Allusions and the theme of the oranges were highlighted; I did occasionally wish for sharper emphasis or shaping, but maybe I was expecting something that the orchestration isn't designed to do.  Director Ansgar Weigner, experienced in operetta, created a production that was visually pleasing and musically attuned. (Christof Cremer's costumes gave great help in characterization.) The production's boldest moments were its most successful ones: a send-up of opera clichés via a Freischütz pastiche at the outset found echoes in Tchélio's amateurish summoning. I also particularly liked the touch of having Truffaldino present the Prince with a miniature orange which he finds almost more fascinating than the real thing. Having Fata Morgana exulting over the collective celebration of the self-absorbed prince's coronation was a brilliant way of handling the conclusion, I thought, but I would have liked to see more of this biting commentary in the rest of the production.

The commitment of the chorus to diction and on-stage action that went beyond Aimless Milling was admirable. The ease with which the singers of the ensemble interacted with each other was one of the evening's assets, and musical values were solid. Axel Wagner deserves special praise for giving a comical cook without being excessively campy. Sharon Kempton, as Ninetta, sang with a clear, bright soprano and conveyed effectively her dismay at the less than heroic qualities of the prince. Dennis Wilgenhof's sonorous bass was reminiscent of more serious kings. Annette Luig embraced the flamboyant villainy of Fata Morgana with admirable courage. As the petulant Prince, Martin Homrich was a good sport in offering, scenically and vocally, a parody of tenor posturing. The standout of the evening, I felt, was Erik Biegel as the long-suffering harlequin figure of Truffaldino. With a flexible tenor and a comic physicality reminiscent of Harold Lloyd, Biegel won sympathy and elicited amusement as he coped with three giant oranges and uncountable absurdities.

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