The UK première of

Love for Three Oranges


Noëlle MANN

While Prokofiev moved on with his career, Coates never abandoned his dream of conducting Love for Three Oranges. On 4 May 1935, Prokofiev’s publisher in Paris wrote to him: “It will be most likely agreeable to you to hear that we negotiated recently with the BBC, who will give two performances of your opera Love for Three Oranges.” (7) A few days later Coates wrote to Prokofiev: “We are broadcasting The Love of Three Oranges about June 30th from London, and I want very much to come to you, or you to me, within the next weeks, so that we can go very carefully over the tempi”. (8) Unfortunately, Prokofiev was in Russia at the time. He expected to be back in Paris some time in June, but in the event he remained in Russia the entire summer of 1935, staying with his family in Polenovo, where he would complete Romeo and Juliet. (9)
     The opera was sung in English in a translation by Edward Agate, an experienced man who in his career translated a wide range of documents related to music, as varied as Arthur Honneger’s 1921 Oratorio Le Roi David and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration. According to the aforementioned letter from Prokofiev’s publisher, the BBC version of the opera was shortened and expected to last about 1:30 hours (against the average duration in recordings of 1:50 hours). (10) In a one-page article in The Radio Times (issue dated June 28, p. 13), the music critic and writer Michel Dimitri Calvocoressi introduced the opera as:

...a combination of farce and fairy tale, both elements used without half-measures. But pure farce predominates, and the purposes and spells of the wizards are not to be taken more seriously than the emotions and adventures of the human puppets whose fate they help to determine.

     After taking his readership through the complex story, he concludes:

All this, it will be seen, is as irresponsible – but by no means so subtle – as Alice in Wonderland; and so well done that we naturally enter the spirit of the thing and take it all in our stride. We do not believe a single moment in the magic power of Fata Morgana, but we accept its manifestations readily. The death of the two innocent princesses does not affect us, any more than the sudden intervention, in the midst of the grim far-away desert of the Drolls, with their bucket of water, strikes us as incongruous. There is no appeal to human emotion or to human reason: even the logic of topsy-turvydom is not called into play. But such as it is, the libretto (written, let it be marked, by Prokofiev himself) afforded a wealth of opportunities for music. It is the music that unifies and magnifies the grotesque story and gives life to it.

     In the opinion of one listener, the broadcast was a success.

Thank you for the two magnificent broadcasts of The Love for Three Oranges. The interpretation carried that firmness and authority which we have learned to connect with everything Mr. Albert Coates conducts: and a special round of thanks should go to the Control Room, for the balance between voices and orchestra was perfect – which is not always the case. My only need was an English libretto, but the announcer’s amusing captions [there was therefore a commentary offered to replace to a point the visual impact that is lost in a radio production of an opera – Ed.] filled the need to some extent, and he, the conductor, and all the artists conveyed the impression that they were enjoying the fooling as much as we were!

Florence G. Fidler, Kenton. (11)

7) Letter of 4 May 1935, from Grandes Editions Musicales to Prokofiev. The Serge Prokofiev Archive. XXXIX/370.
8) Letter of 8 May 1935, from Coates to Prokofiev. The Serge Prokofiev Archive. XXXIX/382.
9) In a telegram dated 18 June 1935, Prokofiev replied to Coates: “Most happy to know producing Oranges London. Regret unable help you as staying all summer USSR. Sincere greetings. Prok.” The Serge Prokofiev Archive. XL/27.
10) Unfortunately, the Prokofiev Archive has not been able to locate a recording of this production or any documentation that would allow us to ascertain which sections were cut out.
11) The Radio Times, issue dated July 19, p. 9.