And More on Prokofiev'sThree Oranges!

Ben Hecht was right, and no critic was of the opinion that Prokofiev was a classicist. His opera had nothing to do with the operatic tradition, and shocked many viewers, as reflected in a short article of the Musical Courier, 23 February 1922:

“New York had a novel valentine [the opera was performed on 14 February. Ed.] in the shape of the first performance of Serge Prokofieff’s long promised opera The Love for Three Oranges – that is, if one can call it an opera.”

And further, after the critic had expressed his admiration for Anisfeld’s decors and costumes, he had this to say about the music:

“As for the music, it seemed provided more to underscore the action and the humor (much as Prokofiev had declared years before) than for its own sake. Except for the march – not a particularly good march at that – and one intermezzo, there was nothing that could be called a tune in the whole work. The voices were constantly busy singing short, unmelodious phrases with only an occasional bit of chorus to relieve things. In the music, however, as well as in the book, the composer had found means of expressing genuinely humorous effects. While perhaps the music did not add anything in particular to the evening, it certainly did not distract from it.”

But one of the most revealing contemporary document on this opera comes from Prokofiev’s own hand in the form of a letter written in 1932 to Philippe Gaubert. Born in 1879, Gaubert was a flautist and professor at the Paris Conservatoire, who became very prominent in the French music circles between the two world wars. At the time when Prokofiev sent him this letter, he was Principal conductor at the Paris Opéra and had conducted a number of Prokofiev’s symphonic works over the past few years as the Principal Conductor of the Société des Concerts. Prokofiev was writing to him to report his disagreement with the director of the Opéra, Jacques Rouché (1862-1957). Two years before, Rouché had promised Prokofiev he would give the Three Oranges during the 1931-32 season. Regrettably, this had not materialised and after fruitlessly applying pressure on Rouché, Prokofiev was now turning to Gaubert in the hope he might be able to influence the director.

Serge Prokofieff
5, rue Valentin Haüy
Paris XV

22 June 1932


Monsieur Philippe Gaubert
162 Boulevard Berthier
Paris XVII


My dear Gaubert,

I hope that you have received the piano score of Love for Three Oranges, which I instructed my publisher to send you.
   Here is the text of Mr Rouché’s letter of 30 August 1930, in which he committed himself to do my opera:
   “I confirm my intention to include Love for Three Oranges in the repertoire of the 1931-32 season. We shall work together to modify the present text to transform it into an opera-ballet.”
   Six months later, during the spring of 1931, I met Mr Rouché many times to discuss the production and décors of Love for Three Oranges. He even envisaged inviting the artist who did the decors for the Moscow production, of which he had acquired some reproductions. Lifar and I developed a proposal to transform Love for Three Oranges into an opera-ballet, which we gave to Mr Rouché. In short, everything indicated that the opera would be produced at the start of the 1931-32 season when suddenly I received a letter from Mr Rouché, written on 24 July 1931, of which I am now giving you an excerpt.
   “I had hoped that you would succeed in transforming Love for Three Oranges. You know why: all the episodic sections on the political discussion are of a satire that belongs to Gozzi’s times. Today, this is incomprehensible. The fable itself is very naïve: the events in it are of a comical type which would appear rather dubious to the Parisian public. The procession of gluttons, grotesques, puppets of a gigantic size, have always taken place in any Russian play, without ‘unleashing laughter’. Fairies and devils must be modernised. I therefore don’t believe in success without an adaptation which, I told you from the outset, was necessary. You explained to me the reasons why you thought the episodes necessary, and the artistic reasons for which such adaptation seemed impossible to you. So we are left with the great musical value of your work! We would have to rely entirely on it, unless some thinking helps you change your mind. Today, some very difficult and worrying commercial circumstances prevent me from allocating a fixed date to any project. The ballet [Sur le borysthène], which is a commitment of less importance, is still scheduled for the end of December.”

   Here are extracts from my reply:

   “This is a truly unexpected situation: the Director of a backward theatre bemoans a lack of modernity in the libretto of the avant-garde composer! Someone must be mistaken in this situation and – by logical deduction – it must be the Director. By criticising some of my characters and certain allusions, you refuse to acknowledge the true novelty and merit of the subject. Indeed there are no new subjects: Carlo Gozzi himself declared that he had counted all the situations possible on a stage and that there were only 67; he swore that any other situation would have to enter one of these categories. Therefore there are no new subjects, only new ways to treat them. Well, my novelty resides in the cinematographic tempo in which everything takes place on the stage; every minute something is happening, and that is precisely what brought success to Love for Three Oranges.
   I have attended many of your premières this year. Not everything I saw was fun, and instead everything was slow, slow and slow. While falling asleep in my box, I would think with satisfaction: at last Mr Rouché will have a lively opera that will bring relief to the poor subscribers. Can you imagine my disappointment when, in the course of our many meetings, you failed entirely to notice the merit of this tempo which is the principal feature of my work. Instead of which, every time you criticised some insignificant detail, such as two fleeting sentences on odd verses, which could be replaced by anything at all; or large puppets which, by the way, are not in the libretto, and which an artist can replace with anything else; or the apparition of the ‘Tragicals’ or ‘Comicals’ who wouldn’t raise the curiosity of the contemporary Parisian. [...]
   But, my dear Director, do you really believe that, after composing three operas and five ballets which established me as an avant-garde composer, I could ever think that a dispute between tragicals and comicals would be received passionately by today’s public?! Of course not. What attracted me was the irruption of ANY group who, for some incomprehensible reason, interrupt the action, and are then thrown off the stage by gentlemen perched at the top of high towers, so that the action may proceed. Each author believes that his inventions are excellent, but in this case I can be objective and speak through experience since this opera has been produced all around the world, with great success for the subject, even when my music remained incomprehensible. The only place where the Oranges was a fiasco was Berlin: there the public was expecting excessive passions à la Tristan and static moments à la Wotan. [...]
   As for the Parisian public, the piano score was published eight years ago and seen by a great many people, among whom some were simple amateurs and others representatives of the artistic elite. All of them declared unanimously: ‘When will this opera be finally produced in Paris? It is only Paris who can appreciate it fully.’ You are the first French person to line himself up with the Berlin public, and I hope you will be the only one. [...]
   Finally, this entire discussion has been at an aesthetic level; it remains to deal with the moral aspect. You will remember, my dear Director, that when I committed myself to write a ballet for the Opéra, I had other offers which were rather advantageous financially. The presentation of my ballet by the Opéra is most honorable, but hardly profitable. Therefore I asked you, in lieu of compensation, to give one of my operas along with the ballet, preferably Love for Three Oranges. You agreed, and indicated the 1931-32 season. I dropped my other commitments and composed a ballet for you, putting much effort into my work. I didn’t object when you postponed the ballet. But now I am claiming my compensation – Love for Three Oranges.”

   Mr Rouché’s reply, dated 8 August 1931 (I quote only the most important passages, because the letter itself is three times longer):
   “First of all I shall reply to each of your statements to vindicate myself of the reproaches you address to me, in the same friendly spirit as that in which you wrote them. There is nothing ‘unexpected’ in the fact that the theatre which you call backward is led by an avant-garde man! Or that a Director might be moving constantly ahead even though he is held back by the taste of his subscribers or by certain critics who are not used to seeing innovations on an official stage, or finally that composers might stop evolving. You yourself were extremely avant-garde when you composed Love for Three Oranges. Excited men who partake in the action from the top of a tower, two elevated stages, the spatial décor, all that belongs to 1924; this is now backward theatre. [...]
   You tell me that the opera met with success everywhere, not because of the music, but of the subject, except in Berlin! You hope that Paris will differ from Berlin: if we are talking about the music, yes; if about the libretto, then no. Unless they don’t know Paris, your friends must have been referring to the music. [...]
   I saw it my duty to open the Opéra to you, such is the admiration I have for your musical genius, but also to give you some advice on the Parisian public, whom I know from long experience. I shall not try to convince you any more. [...]
   In your conclusion you mention the moral aspect. I presume you are talking about the financial or practical aspect. On the legal side, you will remember that the contract stipulates as a condition that the libretto be altered, shortened, and that our conventions are controlled by a collective, general contract signed with the “Société des Auteurs” [Performing Rights Society]. The Director is bound to play the works within three years. At the end of this period, the authors are free to use their work and are entitled to an indemnity. Furthermore, once this indemnity has been paid, the Director is freed of his commitment towards the author. Therefore if circumstances independent of my own will were to prevent me from giving you the special treatment I was so willing to give you, my situation would be sorted out within the terms of the contract. [...]
   As you can see there is nothing malicious. These explanations to your long letter can only strengthen a sympathy which you qualify as mutual.”
   In November 1931, in Lifar’s box, I met Mr Rouché who said that the ballet would be done in the new year. He wrote the same thing to my publisher. Love for Three Oranges wasn’t mentioned and, since then, as I believe Mr Rouché broke his word, I have kept myself to myself.
   Forgive me, my dear Gaubert, to burden you with so many details, but, as I appreciate the interest which you have in my music, and knowing that as from now you are in charge of everything musical at the Opéra, I thought it would be useful to sum up all the discussions so that you be informed. Perhaps you will be able to promote my opera which seems to have been buried for reasons that have nothing to do with the work.

                                                                                       Yours truly,


(Translated from the French by Noëlle Mann and published for the first time)


It appears that Gaubert did not succeed for the opera-ballet was not produced at the Opéra Garnier. The two men involved in the dispute had irreconcilable views. Prokofiev had little regard for ballet as a genre, even for his own, whereas, ever since 1929 under the impulsion of Serge Lifar, Rouché had been developing ballet to the detriment of opera, mainly to cater for the conservative taste of a growing, wealthy ballet audience who made up most of the subscribers. Love for Three Oranges was too much of a modernist opera to be adapted successfully into an opera-ballet and, as the letter demonstrates, Prokofiev was not minded to compromise. Prokofiev was already dead when his opera (not as an opéra-ballet) finally reached Paris in 1956 at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt with a visiting troupe from Slovenia. The Opéra-Comique put up its own production in 1983 only.