Opera: Peels of laughter

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AFTER THE solemnities of Boris Godunov, the second opera brought by the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet to their week-long residence at the Coliseum couldn't have offered a more marked contrast: Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges. And it was one of those productions you dream of: relentlessly funny, thrillingly paced, magnificently sung and played.

Carlo Gozzi's original play (1761) parodied rival schools of theatre in his contemporary Venice. So when, in 1918, Prokofiev shaped his libretto from a translation by Vsevolod Meyerhold, it came pre-fitted, so to speak, with Gozzi's attendant choruses of Comedians, Tragedians and Cranks, all adding their fatuous comments on, and intervening in, the struggle between good and evil that is supposed to be the heart of the nonsensical plot.

As a result, the stage action is bubblingly busy, and Sir Peter Ustinov's production grabbed every fleeting opportunity for wit with such dizzying, wanton invention that it almost outpaced the audience's ability to take it all in: laugh a moment too long and you'll miss the next gag, on stage, in the surtitles - you didn't know where it would come from. And Ustinov's imagination fills every inch of space, the chorus of Cranks commenting from overhead walkways, while the Bolshoi dancers, with comically distended buttocks and bellies, waggle on and off stage below them like agitated chickens - all these and other elements threaded through the action like letters through a stick of rock.

The singing was universally excellent, the first among equals being the bass Vladimir Matorin as the King of Clubs and tenor Sergei Gaidei as his son, who suffers from acute hypochondria until animated by the citric obsession of the title. The female leads shone no less luminously: Marina Shutova sexy-nasty as Princess Clarissa, Irina Udalova imperious as Fata Morgana, the embodiment of evil, Oksana Lomova radiant as Ninetta, the third princess discovered in the oranges.

The Bolshoi orchestra played with virtuosic responsiveness and vigour for Mark Ermler, their chief conductor and music director.

A pity that the costs of touring such a massive organisation meant expensive tickets, since a production of such quality deserves a long run of packed houses. Those of us lucky enough to catch it came out with our heads whirling with giggling delight.