Opera; THE LOVE FOR THREE ORANGES, Royal Danish Opera at Covent Garden

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Some opera productions change the way we think about a piece. Others change the way we think about the productions that change the way we think about a piece. For some of us, the stage history of Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges can be divided thus: before and after Richard Jones. His wickedly subversive, grimmer than Grimm, scratch-'n'-sniff staging (for Opera North and ENO) was Mervyn Peake crossed with Edward Gorey, the grey, grubby, unsavoury underbelly of pantomime. Operatic conventions could go hang, said Prokofiev. Jones simply kicked the chair away.

But enter now the Royal Danish Opera (on its first visit to Covent Garden) with a staging from choreographer Flemming Flindt which is rather like a spoonful of sugar after the medicine. Bright as a button, terminally cheerful, about as subversive as... well, Playschool. Flindt and his designer Joe Vanek would appear to deny Prokofiev's rebellious, sardonic nature altogether. Bad dream? What bad dream?

But scratch at the surface (as Jones did) and The Love for Three Oranges is nothing if not cynical - a rude riposte to the whole romantic history of opera a la Russe. Flindt and Vanek either don't think so (in which case have they listened, really listened to the score?) or it's a case of "don't scratch, it will never get better".

Which is a view, of course. Or would be, if the presentation weren't so half-baked. For a choreographer - and a distinguished one at that - Flindt here displayed scant command of even the basic physical requirements, ie the organising of bodies on stage. The blockings were weak, the scenes with chorus messy and poorly focused. I lost sight of the Prince altogether at the key moment of his laughter in Act 1, and the ensuing royal knees- up (ditto "the chase" in Act 2) would not pass muster in an end-of-pier revue. One sensed the beginnings of something in the physical interactions of the King and Pantalone (the latter manipulating the former like a bendy doll) and the Prince and Truffaldino (a balletic Gert Henning-Jensen, who can sing too), but even they were not whole-heartedly developed. Nothing was ever quite broad or confident enough. As Pantalone yanked at Fata Morgana's cloak, precipitating her all-important pratfall, I could envisage swathes of unravelling material, a big gesture for a big moment. But no. And speaking of big, it doesn't say much for Danish humour if the best that can be done with the monstrous Cook is a sub-Benny Hill variation on the outsize-bosoms gag. Theatrical wit? Invention? Not a chance.

Looking for all the world like the lobby of a "theme" hotel in Las Vegas - a kind of Art Deco take on the Arabian Nights - Joe Vanek's too, too solid set hardly facilitated the kind of cinematic fluency that Prokofiev's racy narrative demands. Programme photographs can be deceptive. The image of the hypochondriac Prince shrouded in his quilted robes against a mountainous backdrop of pillows is striking in close-up but quite lost on the Covent Garden stage. Again, a simple misjudgement in scale. Everything needed to go up a notch or two.

Including the voices. An enthusiastic chorus (and orchestra) made their mark under Dietfried Bernet, but most of the principals sounded seriously over-parted in this house (at least one out of three commanding villains would have been nice). A good director would undoubtedly have made more of Christian Christiansen's King and Mikael Melbye's Pantalone, and John Laursen's sweet-voiced Prince hinted at a potential way beyond Flindt's feeble physical jerks. Together, he and his Princess Ninetta (1993 Cardiff Singer of the World, Inger Dam-Jensen) embarked upon their love duet with a flurry of powder-pink-chiffon-attired maidens and the feyest of ageing princes in attendance: the custodians of "romantic lyrical drama". A telling glimpse of the old Russia (or new Russia, Kirov-style?) that Prokofiev left behind. Now a little more of that...

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