Performers: Sandrine Piau, Alain Vernhes, Martial Defontaine, Francois Le Roux, Willard White. Musical director: Stephane Deneve, Nederlandse Opera
Studio: Opus Arte OA 0957 D
Video: 16:9 full screen, color
Audio: Dolby 5.0 Surround, DTS 5.0 Surround, PCM stereo
Length: 144 minutes
It’s a comedy, it’s lighthearted, it has great staging, and it’s well-sung. It’s also an enlightened piece of farce and trenchant musical satire. Prokofiev’s first performed opera is based on a commedia del arte tale of Carlo Gozzi and adapted by Vsevolod Meyerhold. With its profusion of visual gags and plethora of illustrative orchestral music, it is Prokofiev’s only opera that achieved true success in his lifetime. (The Fiery Angel probes religion a bit too closely and War and Peace is too sprawling.) This production by the Nederlandse Opera is far superior to the staid one released by Image Entertainment a few years back.
The plot is too intricate to describe here, but I’ll note a few fetching scenes. First, there is the famous March from Act 2 that is both stirring and mocking of the pretensions of the royal court. Then there is the card game between the two sorcerers, which is wondrously wacky, with them being held aloft on two gigantic stools by imps, while plunking down their cards to rhythmic orchestral accompaniment. There are also tender lyrical moments—like the love scene between the prince and the princess he’s freed from a gigantic orange (don’t ask)—but not many. This is a shame, because the astoundingly gifted soprano Sandrine Piau plays the princess Ninetta with sweet precision. Too bad there’s not more of her before her character is turned into a rat. Three groups of “illusion-destroying” critics comment on the opera from key points, a modernist technique explored also the same year by Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. (And sixty years later by Statler & Waldorf from The Muppets.) The critics engage in humorous squabbles, but they also serve dramatic purposes, like saving the princess and supplying choral accompaniment. Stage director Laurent Pelly deserves kudos for conceptualizing those marvelous oranges and the ridiculous battle with the cook. While the program notes contain a marginally interesting, three-page extract from Prokofiev’s diary, for real background you need a guide like the newly released The Grove Book of Operas (second edition). Picture quality is excellent and the DTS surround option brings the viewer right into the opera house.
— Peter Bates