Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Prokofiev with punch: Opera Australia's juicy The Love of Three Oranges in Sydney

Sergei Prokofiev's wackily-titled satirical opera, The Love for Three Oranges, is wacky all the way down to the details in Opera Australia's raucous and infrequently presented production which premiered in 2005. From director Francesca Zambello's characteristic sense of integrated theatrical perfection, the frothy fairytale-entertainment and comic intrigue are squeezed out so electrically that it's unfathomable to think that it could play to anything less than a full house. For it, a strong contingent of highly talented Opera Australia soloists and an animated Opera Australia Chorus come together under revival director Matthew Barclay for something like a fancy dress reunion party. Their total commitment in bringing infectious appeal is palpable.

Rosario La Spina (The Prince) and Catherine Bouchier (Princess Nicoletta)
In a sense, the work defies compartmentalisation, perhaps to its detriment, but it has such magic in its touch that I wonder how could it not sit comfortably amongst Sydney's busy summer season of the usually more popular works like The Magic Flute. It's not only opera, it's so gorgeously accessible.

A good part of its engaging power is attributable to Tom Stoppard's brilliant and witty English libretto, without which seems unimaginable for an English-speaking audience. The text bounces comfortably on Prokofiev's brash, flexing music and is delivered with such clarity on the whole that you need to pinch yourself for looking up at the surtitles.

Conductor Anthony Legge worked marvellously in reigning in the amusing and chaotic proceedings with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra providing polished support and grand flatulent brass highlights. Limitations of the pit drain acoustic warmth but the music nonetheless finds plenty of room to breathe.

Diagnosed as suffering from "galloping malingeritis" in Stoppard's version, medicine cannot cure the melancholic Prince. Laughter and entertainment is the only cure in this rather directionless kingdom (something to suggest the powerful force the arts play in reviving a culture's heart for which our political leaders might note). With a cure comes a curse as evil forces conspire to derail the Prince's succession to the throne by condemning him to search the world for Three Oranges he has been doomed to fall in love with. A rollercoaster journey backfires in the end as the Prince finds love inside the Third Orange, his Princess Ninetta. Evil escapes to rear its head another day.

Kanen Breen as Truffaldino
For the eyes, designers George Tsypin (sets), Tanya Noginova (costumes) and Mark Howett (lighting) have created a tantalising and colourific circus-like atmosphere for their troupe of individual quirky characters. Luminous resin objets (including three exotic oranges) and a fluorescent-bright laboratory-like setting showcase the level of sophistication in detail achieved by every skilled craftsperson. Costumes appear painstakingly but lovingly tailored to meet choreographer Denni Sayers's injection of acrobatic demands which include succulently-danced cacti, playing cards and liquorice-like Napoleonic soldiers. Pounds of makeup enhance theatrical individuality.

Prokofiev's music, while lacking in identifiable arias, generously magnifies the characters in a way which reflects natural, real-time conversational flow. The greater the empathic and characterful delivery in the text without throwing musically out the window, the greater is the success.

In the long list of soloists there is a star, a performer so uncannily gifted you wonder what more this man could have up his sleeve. It seems Kanen Breen is always on stage (and maybe he is) as the endearing half-Chaplinesque, half-clown court jester Truffaldino. Breen zips through the text with distinctive insightfulness and gestural play with his coaxing, rich and gnarly baritone powerfully driving his character. Probably one of the most physically flexible opera singers today, Breen milks every moment with perfectly timed comedy when even a taste of the Prince's vomit is done with charm.

Adrian Tamburini and Kanen Breen 
Tenor Rosario La Spina trudges through the story with weight to shoulder as the Prince, giving the role adequate lyrical warmth and the newfound energy to partake in the work's well-known Opus 33 March which has a wildly concocted "The Time-Warp" song dance routine quality from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. His Prince convincingly swoons over the bright-voiced soprano of Julie Lea Goodwin's peachy Princess Ninetta.

Letting loose a fiercely powerful top, Antoinette Halloran also stands out as the glamorous goth Fata Morgana. David Parkin impresses and brings a stern, oaky-rich bass to the zimmer frame-pushing, hard of hearing King of Clubs. Adrian Tamburini is a hoot as the biggest-boobed Cook you're likely to bump into. Margaret Trubiano whips her way into a great performance as the tight leather suited dominatrix Princess Clarissa. Victoria Lambourn is primly officious as Smeraldina though becomes lost in the lower range. Andrew Moran is striking as the obedient Leander and could just about pass for George Calombaris if he sported a cravat. As the clinician-like Pantaloon, Luke Gabbedy is steadfastly secure in voice and Gennadi Dubinsky is commandingly dark and resonant as the wizard Chelio. Smaller roles down the list are pleasingly portrayed with Pelham Andrews as Farfarello, Eva Kong as Linetta, Catherine Bouchier as Nicoletta and David Greco as the Herald.

Not a spare seat should be available in the house. It's Prokofiev with punch and a production the company should be very proud of.

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 9th July

Production Photographs: Prudence Upton

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