Enchanted Evening

Everyone will have a favorite moment in the City Opera’s deliriously zany revival of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. Mine comes near the end, when a nervous-looking sphinx, terrorized at the sight of a life-size rat, lifts her gigantic stone paw in alarm. No, that’s not in the score, but the composer might have put it there if he had thought of it. Maurice Sendak’s sets and costumes and Frank Corsaro’s staging are just as madcap and inventive as the opera itself, and very little misses the target. The two have created many wonderful productions over the past twenty years, but their loony take on Prokofiev’s transformation of Carlo Gozzi’s uproarious eighteenth-century fable, first seen at the 1982 Glyndebourne Festival, may be the partnership’s finest hour.

Prokofiev, who retained a little boy’s fascination with mechanical toys and circus antics all his life, would surely have appreciated the production’s colorful spectacle, theatrical savvy, and childlike wonder, all of which so accurately reflect the energetic spirit of his music. It’s difficult to think of a better way to tell this improbable tale of a hypochondriac Prince who laughs when the sorceress Fata Morgana loses her drawers, is condemned by her vengeful curse to fall hopelessly in love with three captive oranges, and sets out on a knightly quest in search of them. The stage is constantly alive and full of surprises: three gigantic oranges each containing a thirsty princess, cute cardboard-cutout monsters, toy naval battles, tumbling acrobats, and a grotesque cook who guards the precious oranges in the evil Creonta’s castle. The cook could only be a Sendak inspiration, a huge singing head whose mobile features and acting skills exceed the expressive capacities of most live opera singers.

For this revival, Corsaro wisely plays down his idea that we are watching an actual French commedia dell’arte troupe, circa 1789, perform The Love for Three Oranges in front of a brawling revolutionary crowd – a rather pointless imposition on an already crazy-quilt plot. The various choral groups that continually comment upon and sometimes mix in with the action are now more in line with the disputatious aesthetic factions of the original, and all the better for it. Thankfully the work is also now sung in English rather than in French, the language of choice when the City Opera first presented this production in 1985 – a bizarre idea, even if the 1921 world premiere in Chicago was sung in a French translation of Prokofiev’s native Russian.

The large cast goes through its athletic paces with crisp discipline, an accomplishment all the more impressive now that the City Opera is no longer the same sort of tightly knit ensemble company that put on this complex, fast-moving show fifteen years ago. The outstanding performance comes from Richard Troxell, a delightfully daffy Prince despite his rather undernourished tenor. He executes a hilarious pas de deux with the lovable but vacant Princess Ninetta, sweetly sung by Kathleen Brett. Villains crowd the stage, each more droll than the last: Linda Roark-Strummer’s wicked Fata Morgana, Eduardo Chama’s slimy Leandro, George Cordes’s pompous Celio, and Rod Nelman’s devilish Farfarello. The orchestra under George Manahan’s direction can’t quite toss off Prokofiev’s dazzling score with ultimate instrumental virtuosity; nevertheless, the exuberant playing nicely complements the opera’s frantic action.

“Musicians receive these awards based on excellence alone.” That is the simple criterion for the Avery Fisher Prize of $50,000, a generous gift that was always intended as an anointment for exceptional artists who have already arrived rather than a career boost for talented beginners. There have been only fourteen winners since the award was first given in 1975, half of them pianists and, until last year’s trio of violinists, all male. Since most prestigious award-granting organizations tend to be as image-sensitive as the artists they honor (e.g., the Van Cliburn Competition), the Fisher executive committee may well have been consciously trying to broaden horizons even more this year by choosing musicians whose instruments fall into more specialized categories: double bass and clarinet.

Actually, Edgar Meyer stretches the Fisher Award parameters further. Not only is he a double bassist, but his diverse activities indicate just how hybrid the state of classical music is these days. We’re not talking about crossover here. Meyer, now 39, never crossed over but was always there. Like so many other musicians of his generation, he, too, has happily helped himself to all kinds of music since childhood, from Beethoven to bluegrass, from jazz to hard rock. Perhaps the repertory limitations of the double bass and its adaptability to many idioms encouraged Meyer to cast such a wide net, but one gets the feeling from his playing, his collaborative projects, and his own compositions that he is only doing what comes naturally.

There are already plenty of stunning examples of Meyer’s versatility and creativity on recordings, but for mastery of the instrument pure and simple, listen to his Sony disc of three unaccompanied suites by Bach, originally for cello (SK 89183). Cellists find these scores tough enough, but the sheer size of the double bass adds considerably to the technical problems, challenges that Meyer meets with grace while reveling in the music’s rhythmic lilt and dramatic impulse.

Another musician of many parts, David Shifrin is the artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as well as a busy soloist in recital and with orchestras. He is actually the second clarinetist to be honored by the Fisher folk, having been preceded by Richard Stoltzman in 1986. A very different sort of player than the theatrically flamboyant Stoltzman, Shifrin can always be counted on to give patrician performances of the clarinet classics, while his quiet advocacy of living composers has already resulted in several impressive new scores. One of his latest discs, with the Emerson String Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon (289 459 641-2), couples the Mozart and Brahms Quintets. Shifrin’s clarinet collaborates as an elegant primus inter pares in these masterworks, weaving a gorgeous solo line through performances that are as silky-smooth as they are vitamin-rich.

Enchanted Evening