Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
June 22, 2016

What do Turandot and The Love for Three Oranges have in common? Answer, both are derived from commedia dell’arte scenarios by Carlo Gozzi, the 18th-century master of the silly story. But while Puccini turned Gozzi’s Eastern fable into a semi-tragic chinoiserie, which has gone on to conquer the world, Prokofiev’s opera, while truer to the spirit of its commedia origin, is still a relative rarity. Ever since its Chicago premiere (oddly given in French as L’amour des Trois Oranges, due to the composer’s poor grasp of English), critics have picked on it for its absence of arias and a tendency to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lyricism. Like Chinese food, they complain, it doesn’t fill you up. Well, maybe the 21st century will be kinder. Given the current collision between our appetite for entertainment and our diminishing attention spans, perhaps its time is now? Either way, Opera Australia’s timely revival of Francesca Zambello’s witty, well-informed production, first seen in 2005, offers the work as good a chance as any to be appreciated.

Love for Three OrangesLuke Gabbedy (Pantaloon), Rosario La Spina (The Prince), David Parkin (The King of Clubs) and Kanen Breen (Truffaldino)

The plot is simple. The son and heir of the King of Clubs is melancholy and believed likely to die. Should this happen, the throne will pass to the King’s naughty niece Clarissa and her duplicitous lover, the Prime Minister, who have been secretly stuffing the poor lad with Tennysonian funeral odes. The court fool, Truffaldino lays on an entertainment to try and cheer the prince up. Good and evil wizards are called upon to influence the outcome, and when the prince unexpectedly laughs on seeing the wicked Fata Morgana’s knickers, she curses him to pine eternally for the three oranges. His quest to steal the oranges from a giant cook, and the triumph of good following his discovery of a princess inside one of them, takes up the second half of the opera. The plot is entertaining but not faultless. It can feel like there’s a whole back story missing: how did the princesses get into the oranges? Who is this monstrous cook? Although some of the large cast of characters feel decidedly surplus to requirements, the story whizzes along, and in Tom Stoppard’s sharp, yet reasonably faithful translation there’s plenty to smile at.

Prokofiev’s libretto was adapted from a Gozzi-inspired play by the Soviet theatrical guru Vsevolod Meyerhold. It thus mixes the Russian director’s trademark symbolist style with a rib-tickling dose of surrealism plus nods to the jazz age frivolities of the likes of Cocteau. Zambello’s staging pops all that in a theatrical cocktail shaker and blends it via George Tsypin’s eccentric set, Mark Howett’s nifty lighting plot and Tanya Noginova’s whacky costumes with visual references to the machine age and the artistic worlds of Dalí and Magritte. A riot of colour, it has touches of carnival, pantomime, silent movies and some crazy Heath Robinson gizmos. It’s all a bit Freudian as well, should you care to play ‘spot the phallic symbol’. Denni Sayers kooky choreography delivers special pleasures of its own.

Kanen Breen as Truffaldino

For this revival, OA have fielded what is mostly a home team, and very fine it is. In order to carry off both score and stylised staging, singers need to be triple threats of sorts: they need fine voices capable of finessing some tricky music, be disciplined actors, and be well versed in physical comedy. Not everyone is completely successful in all three, but those who are certainly carry enough of the show to ensure the necessary audience feel-good factor.

Top of the pops are Kanen Breen’s clownish, grimacing Truffaldino, Adrian Tamburini’s ten-ton, dragged-up cook and Julie Lea Goodwin’s feisty Princess Ninetta. Breen is an old hand at physical comedy and he digs nicely into his bag of tricks to enliven what is the main commedia character in the opera. Half made-up as Charlie Chaplin, half as Harlequin, his ticks are timed to never upstage, while his plangent, lyric tenor carries every word to the back of the theatre. Tamburini is especially engaging in a cameo as a grotesquely over the top Fanny Cradock, complete with pendulous breasts and frightful pantomime dame makeup. A stylish physical clown, he never overplays his hand, ensuring every laugh lands smack bang on target. Vocally he’s ideal, his sonorous bass combining musical comedy with the scarily sensual. The ‘magic ribbon’ scene with Breen is a delight. Goodwin too is spot on, steering a controlled, clever line between demanding diva and winsome miss (plus a nice bit of rodent acting on the side). Her substantial lyric soprano is blessed with perfect diction – it’s a pity she doesn’t appear until the last act.

Love for Three OrangesGennadi Dubinsky (Chelio) and Antoinette Halloran (Fata Morgana)

Fine performances are also on offer from David Parkin’s beautifully sung, doddery King of Clubs, shuffling around on his custom-made Zimmer frame, Luke Gabbedy’s subservient Pantaloon, Andrew Moran’s whey-faced, firm-voiced Leander, Margaret Trubiano’s laser beam dominatrix of a Clarissa, Antoinette Halloran’s clarion Into the Woods-inspired Fata Morgana and Gennadi Dubinsky’s sepulchral, nicely nuanced Chelio. And who’d have picked Rosario La Spina for the hapless prince? With his clean tenor combined with excellent diction, some clever casting makes for a nicely sympathetic hero. Meyerhold’s cleverest innovation was to frame the action with a heated debate by opera-goers about what kind of entertainment they would like to see. The OA chorus are brilliant throughout, entertaining both vocally and physically, whether as barmy clowns advocating a comedy, morbid looking tragedians, or lyricists in search of a romance demanding “tunes they can hum”.

A special mention should go to the ten men playing ‘The Ridiculous Ones’ who support the absurdist tendencies in the opera and are called upon to intervene at key points to tell us what they think. They even have to save the day at the end. Flapping around the stage like a camp chorus of Julians and Sandys, they have carefully finessed every gasp, titter and clutch of the pearls. Please can someone nominate them for a special Helpmann? Down in the pit, meanwhile, Tony Legge keeps things swift and steady, ensuring all can be heard and teasing out Prokofiev’s fleeting orchestrational delights from his fine orchestra. Needless to say, he lands the famous march with class.

Love for Three OrangesRosario La Spina (The Prince) and Catherine Bouchier (Princess Nicoletta)

With its keystone cops choruses of syringe and enema wielding doctors and nurses, this is an evening with a delicious flavour of the lunatics taking over the asylum. Long may opera subvert our expectations while serving up palate-tickling soufflés such as this.

Limelight Newsletter