The UK première of

Love for Three Oranges

Noëlle MANN

Entries in Opera dictionaries date the British première of Love for Three Oranges on 24 August 1962 at the Edinburgh Festival (King's Theatre), with a guest performance by the Belgrade Opera. In reality, documents in the Prokofiev Archive have revealed that the first British performance of this work was broadcast on the BBC National Programme on 4 July 1935, conducted by Prokofiev’s long-standing advocate, Albert Coates.
    Born in St. Petersburg of English parents, Albert Coates (1882-1953) was principal conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre from 1911, where he gradually replaced the ageing Napravnik. As early as 1914, Prokofiev was looking up to Coates as the one conductor who might possibly stage his opera Maddalena at the Mariinsky. (1) Prokofiev’s hopes did not materialise, but it was Coates who would later encourage him to compose The Gambler with a view to producing it at the Mariinsky. Scheduled for 1917, the production would have to be postponed, one of the victims of the revolution’s upheavals. Coates left Russia in 1919 and, as soon as Prokofiev moved to America, engaged in a correspondence that bears testimony to the live interest he had in the young composer’s music. With the London Symphony Orchestra, Coates introduced the Scythian Suite to London in November 1920 and also the Third Piano Concerto in April 1922. All this is well documented. What is not known, though, is Coates’ early interest in Love for Three Oranges. It was November 1919, i.e. two years before the opera would eventually be first performed in Chicago in 1921, when Coates announced to Prokofiev that he had secured Covent Garden’s interest in staging the opera, and a production was already scheduled for June 1920. (2)
     Most biographies and articles develop the theory that Prokofiev went off to Europe to renew his ties with Diaghilev and hopefully join in the growing number of high-profile composers writing for him. After all Prokofiev himself is responsible for this interpretation, if we are to believe what he writes in his autobiography: “In April I went to Paris and London where I met Stravinsky and Diaghilev. The latter had revived his ballet season after the interval caused by the war and was preparing to stage Chout.” (3) Although this is what would eventually happen, these were not at the time the immediate reasons for his departure, his primary aim being revealed in his diary entries and his correspondence. The truth is – Prokofiev embarked for Europe on 27 April 1920 to secure a contract with Covent Garden and to be re-united with his mother. Having arrived in America with a handful of borrowed dollars in his pocket, he was leaving for Europe with exactly $700 and £130, after spending three ways the money he had earned from concerts in America: he bought his visa and boat ticket, sent cheques to embassies to secure his mother’s return and gave Lina $150 to help her with her forthcoming journey to Europe as “advance payment for translating Love for Three Oranges into English for the Covent Garden production”. (4) He then thought that it was Coates who had secured his “quick and smart entrée to Europe”. (5) But once more, the latest of his operatic ventures fell through and the world première took place in Chicago in December 1921 with the company that had commissioned the work, while to this day Covent Garden remains one, if not the only one, of the major world opera companies never to bring to the stage their own production of this sparkling work. (6)   

1) Prokof’ev, S., Dnevnik 1907-1933 (Paris: sprkfv, 2002), Vol. 1, 461, (entry dated 11/05/1914).
2) Prokof’ev, S., Dnevnik 1907-1933 (Paris: sprkfv, 2002), Vol. 2, 49, (entry dated 01/11/1919).
3) Prokofiev, Serge, Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, trans. and ed. Oleg Prokofiev and Christopher Palmer, (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 268.
4) Prokof’ev, S., Dnevnik 1907-1933 (Paris: sprkfv, 2002), Vol. 2, 95, (entry dated 26/04/1920).
5) Prokof’ev, S., Dnevnik 1907-1933 (Paris: sprkfv, 2002), Vol. 2, 49, (entry dated 01/11/1919).
6) On 2 September 1996, the opera was staged in Covent Garden on a production by the visiting Royal Danish Opera.