Rare fruit

Tragedy is simply tragedy; a comedy is never just a comedy. Tragedy may be life as it commonly is, after acquiring some artistic polish; comedy offers a new look at existence. As the great and influential Russian theatrical director Vsevolod Meyerhold said, ‘I know for a fact that what is said in jest is often more serious than what is said seriously.’

Does this paradox have any resonance for contemporary Australia where there seems so little to joke about? What can we think—really think—about Sergei Prokofiev’s dazzlingly grotesque and witty, but astutely judged, opera The Love for Three Oranges, which in January had its inaugural Australian season as the first brilliant fruit of Opera Australia’s new music director, Richard Hickox?

Its local première? More than 80 years after its initial season in Chicago? Clearly, it’s not merely in politics that we are so conservative and cautious! Consider how long it took for Meyerhold’s revolutionary approach to theatre—its philosophy and its praxis—to have any significant influence here. Well after World War II, nearly 50 years after Meyerhold’s seminal work, we were still enduring the turgid 19th-century manner, as filtered, diluted and exported by London; almost all of the changes which have vitalised our approach to theatre in the last 50 years are reflections of Meyerhold’s thinking.

He was crucial, too, in the genesis of The Love for Three Oranges. In 1914, for just that year, under the pseudonym of Dr Dapertutto (or Dr Everywhere, from a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann), he produced an intellectually polychrome magazine which he called The Love for Three Oranges. Its first number included a Russian translation of Carlo Gozzi’s play of that title, and Prokofiev took a copy with him when he went to the United States for his first concert tour in the summer of 1918.

Like many a jaded opera-goer of today, Meyerhold was weary of 19th-century melodrama and sentimental romances and he revelled in the grotesque for its capacity to achieve a deeper effect on audiences.

 ‘The basis of the grotesque,’ he wrote, ‘is the artist’s constant desire to switch the spectator from the plane he has just reached to another which is totally unforeseen,’ and further, ‘In its search for the supernatural, the grotesque synthesises opposites, creates a picture of the incredible, and invites the spectator to solve the riddle of the inscrutable.’ And if one person epitomised that supremely during the Sydney season, it was William Ferguson, who, as Truffaldino, was a coruscating amalgam of acrobat, dancer and Chaplinesque clown.

So Meyerhold showed Russia and then the world what the theatre can do, by his willingness to use every possible device to achieve his aesthetic and spiritual transformations. ‘Unless the theatre shouts as lustily as the streets, it won’t attract an audience for love nor money.’

Prokofiev responded wonderfully to this galvanising philosophy: his score is dazzling, witty and constantly inventive. He can parody Wagner just as well as traditional operatic conventions. His deft writing for the wind and brass instruments is scintillating or self-regardingly lugubrious, often at the least expected moments, and—heard in context—the justly famous March is a constant but shrewdly varied delight.

The stage is no less abuzz with activity than the pit, but in this production director Francesca Zambello daringly threw much of her action into the auditorium. Clearly, she has a great gift to encourage her large cast to give of their best, and they responded enthusiastically, revealing impressive but often latent comic skills: the bass, Arend Baumann, for example, as the blowsy and tyrannical but twinkle-toed Lady-Cook. With her highly imaginative costume (Tania Noginova) and lighting (Mark Howett) designers she confected an operatic dish that is rare in Sydney.

The piquant irony is that her success would not have been possible without the ascendancy which Meyerhold demanded and achieved for the theatrical director.

 There is a lot of nonsense talked in this country about the perniciousness of ‘directors’ opera’ and the damage that it does to some imagined ‘authentic purity’ of the operatic art form. Yet, until near the end of the 18th century operatic playbills announced the librettists’ operas, not the composers’.

 Even acknowledging the composer’s pre-eminence, a piece cannot become a satisfying stage experience without the director’s imagination and discipline. She needs an enthusiastic colleague in the conductor, and that is precisely what Richard Hickox was. He and his orchestra relished their manifold expressive, colouristic and energetic opportunities. So, in consequence, did we.

The magic of The Love for Three Oranges works on us constantly and wonderfully. While experiencing it, we look into the distorting mirror, which Meyerhold sought, and see a greater truth than a literal reflection can give.

 And as we leave the theatre we can thank Prokofiev, a great team and a for-once benevolent fate which, in Hickox, has given us a finer replacement for the ill-treated Simone Young than we had any right to expect or deserve. 

John Carmody is a Sydney medical scientist and opera and music critic.


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