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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fantastic Lollypops

Guest Blogger Dept.: Before he wrote “The Front Page,” before he began a distinguished career as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Ben Hecht was a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, for which he covered the final dress rehearsal of the new, notorious opera by Serge Prokofiev. At the time, the company was run by the imperious soprano Mary Garden. “The Love for Three Oranges” opened to generally unfavorable reviews: as Hecht predicted, the critics made little effort to enjoy what’s now a repertory staple.


THEY WILL NEVER START. No, they will never start. In another two minutes Mr. Prokofiev will go mad. They should have started at eleven. It is now ten minutes after eleven. And they have not yet started. Ah, Mr. Prokofiev has gone mad.

Fata Morgana: Costume
design by Boris Anisfeld
But Mr. Prokofiev is a modernist; so nobody pays much attention. Musicians are all mad. And a modernist musician, du lieber Gott! A Russian modernist musician!

The medieval face of Mr. Boris Anisfeld pops over the rows of empty seats. It is very likely that Mr. Anisfeld will also go mad. For Mr. Anisfeld is, in a way, a collaborator of Mr. Prokofiev. It is the full dress rehearsal of “The Love for Three Oranges.”  Mr. Prokofiev wrote the words and music. Mr. Anisfeld painted the scenery.

“Mees Garden weel be hear in a meenute,” the medieval face of Boris whispers into the Muscovite ears of Serge.

Eleven-fifteen, and Miss Garden has arrived. She is armed, having brought along her heaviest shillalah. Mr Prokofiev is on his feet. He takes off his coat. The medieval face of Mr. Anisfeld vanishes. Tap, tap, on the conductor’s stand. Lights out. A fanfare from the orchestra’s right.

Last rehearsal for the world premier of a modernist opera!  One winter morning years ago the music critics of Paris sat and laughed themselves green in the face over the incomprehensible banalities of an impossible modernist opera called “Tannhauser.” And who will say that critics have lost their sense of humor. There will unquestionably be laughter before this morning is over.

Music like this has never come from the orchestra pit of the Auditorium. Strange combinations of sounds that seem to come from street pianos, New Year’s eve horns, harmonicas and old-fashioned musical beer steins that play when you lift them up. Mr. Prokofiev waves his shirt-sleeved arms and the sounds increase.

There is nothing difficult about this music – that is, unless you are unfortunate enough to be a music critic. But to the untutored ear there is a charming capriciousness about the sounds from the orchestra. Cadenzas pirouette in the treble. Largos toboggan in the bass. It sounds like the picture of a crazy Christmas tree drawn by a happy child. Which is a most peculiar way for music to sound.

But, attention!  The curtain is up. Bottle greens and fantastic reds. Here is a scene as if the music Mr. Prokofiev were waving out of the orchestra had come to life. Lines that look like the music sounds. Colors that embrace one another in tender dissonances. Yes, like that.

And here, galubcheck (I think it’s galubcheck), are the actors. What is it all about?  Ah, Mr. Prokofiev knows and Boris knows and maybe the actors know. But all it is necessary for us to know is that music and color and a quaint, almost gargoylian, caprice are tumbling around in front of our eyes and ears.

And there is M. Jacques Coini. He will not participate in the world premier. Except in spirit. Now M. Coini is present in the flesh. He wears a business suit, spats of tan and a gray fedora. M. Coini is the stage director. He instructs the actors how to act. He tells the choruses where to chorus and what to do with their hands, masks, feet, voices, eyes and noses.

The hobgoblin extravaganza Mr. Prokofiev wrote unfolds itself with rapidity. Theater habitués eavesdropping on the rehearsal mumble in the half-dark that there was never anything like this seen on earth or in heaven. Mr. Anisfeld’s scenery explodes like a succession of medieval skyrockets. A phantasmagoria of sound, color and action crowds the startled proscenium. For there is no question but that the proscenium, with the names of Verdi, Bach, Haydn and Beethoven chiseled on it, is considerably startled.

Through this business of skyrockets and crescendos and hobgoblins M. Coini stands out like a lighthouse in a cubist storm. However bewildering the plot, however humpty-dumpty the music, M. Coini is intelligible drama. His brisk little figure in its pressed pants, spats and fedora, bounces around amid the apoplectic disturbances like some busybody Alice in an operatic Wonderland.

"The Love for Three Oranges":
Set by Boris Anisfeld
The Opus mounts. The music mounts. Singers attired as singers were never attired before crawl on, bounce on, tumble on. And M. Coini, as undisturbed as a traffic cop or a Loop pigeon, commands his stage. He tells the singers where to stand while they sing, and when they don’t sing to suit him he sings himself. He leads the chorus on and tells it where to dance, and when they don’t dance to suit him he dances himself. He moves the scenery himself. He fights with Mr. Prokofiev while the music splashes and roars around him. He fights with Boris. He fights with electricians and wigmakers.

It is admirable. M. Coini, in his tan spats and gray fedora, is more fantastic than the entire cast of devils and Christmas trees and lollypops, who seem to be the leading actors in the play. Mr. Prokofiev and Miss Garden have made a mistake. They should have let M. Coini play “The Love for Three Oranges” all by himself. They should have let him be the dream towers and the weird chorus, the enchantress and the melancholy prince. M. Coini is the greatest opera I have ever seen. All he needed was M. Prokofiev’s music and the superbly childish visions of the medieval Boris for a background.

The music leaps into a gaudy balloon and sails away in marvelous zigzags, way over the heads of the hobgoblins on the stage and the music critics off the stage. Miss Garden beckons with her shillalah. Mr. Prokofiev arrives panting at her side. He bows, kisses the back of her hand and stands at attention. Also the medieval face of Mr. Anisfeld drifts gently through the gloom and joins the two.

The first act of “The Oranges” is over. Two critics exchanging opinions glower at Mr. Prokofiev. One says: “What a shame! What a shame! Nobody will understand it.” The other agrees. But perhaps they only mean that music critics will fail to understand it and that untutored ones like ourselves will find in the hurdy-gurdy rhythms and contortions of Mr. Prokofiev and Mr. Anisfeld a strange delight. As if some one had given us a musical lollypop to suck and rub in our hair.

I have an interview with Mr. Prokofiev to add. The interview came first and doesn’t sit well at the end of these notes. Because Mr. Prokofiev, sighing a bit nervously in expectation of the world’s premier, said: “I am a classicist. I derive from the classical composers.”

This may be true, but the critics will question it. Instead of quoting Mr. Prokofiev at this time, it may be more apropos merely to say that I would rather see and listen to his opera than to the entire repertoire of the company put together. This is not criticism, but a prejudice in favor of fantastic lollypops.

– Chicago Daily News, 31 December 1921

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