Review: Opera Philadelphia’s Richly Melodic, Laugh-filled “Love for Three Oranges” – September 20, 2019

Exactly a century after Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev finished his score for the fantasy opera “Love for Three Oranges”, Opera Philadelphia presented it in Alessandro Talevi’s production, first seen in Florence Italy’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Opera Philadelphia presented the opera in English, assembling an English-speaking cast, all but one of whom are American.

Jonathan Johnson’s Prince and Barry Banks’ Truffaldino

Georgia tenor Jonathan Johnson brought an attractive lyric voice to the role of the Prince, whose journey from hypochondriac to hero forms the plot of the opera.

Spending the first act in bed, Johnson’s deeply depressed Prince is unable to laugh, and his enemies, who covet the kingdom’s throne, are determined that he remain in a despondent, deathly ill state.

[Below: Truffaldino (Barry Banks, right) checks on the hypochondriac Prince (Jonathan Johnson, left); edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of the Opera Philadelphia.,]

An accident befalling an evil witch (Fata Morgana), causes the Prince to break out in laughter. His new-found merriment earns the Prince a witch’s curse, that requires him to set off on a quest to find three oranges.

[Below: the Prince (Jonathan Johnson) begins his quest for the oranges; edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

As the court jester Truffaldino, English tenor Barry Banks created another of his joyous character roles. I have been admired Banks’ work in such roles diverse roles as Tonio [Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007] and the Astrologer [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Glistening “Golden Cockerel” Starring Venera Gimadieva – July 28, 2017], and regarded his Truffaldino as masterful.

[ Below: Barry Banks as Truffaldino; edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Fata Morgana, Brent Michael Smith’s Chelio, Amanda Lynn Bottoms’ Smeraldina, Zachary Altman’s Leander and Alyssa Anderson’s Princess Clarissa

The evil witch Fata Morgana was performed with sinister effectiveness by New York soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer. She brought to the role of Fata Morgana the vocal power and security she brings to the youthful soprano roles of Wagnerian opera [World Treasure: Seattle Opera’s Gripping and Glorious “Götterdämmerung” – August 9, 2013], As Morgana, Harmer displayed the comic flair she showed in Johann Strauss’ famous operetta [A Feisty, Funny “Fledermaus” – Houston Grand Opera, November 2, 2013.] See also Rising Stars: An Interview with Wendy Bryn Harmer.

[Below: Fata Morgana (Wendy Bryn Harmer, left) having won a card game, now controls the powers of the magician Chelio (Brent Michael Smith, right); edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

Michigan bass Brent Michael Smith was vocally and dramatically effective in portraying the magician Chelio. I previously cited the strong impression that Smith made in the Handelian role of General Ariodates [Review: An Elegantly Performed Glimmerglass Festival “Xerxes” – July 15, 2017], and Smith’s ability to make even small roles in operas by Gershwin and Richard Strauss interesting. A few weeks ago, Smith participated in the world premiere of another “fairy tale” [World Premiere Review: Poul Ruders’ “Thirteenth Child” – Santa Fe Opera, July 27, 2019]

New York mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms made much of Fata Morgana’s villainous operative Smeraldina.

[Below: Chelio (Brent Michael Smith, left), Smeraldina (Amanda Lynn Bottoms, center) and Fata Morgana (Wendy Bryn Harmer, right) are up to no good; edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

Texas contralto Alissa Anderson, on whose Maddalena I had reported earlier this year [Review: San Diego Opera’s Rousing “Rigoletto” – Well-deserved Ovations for Stephen Powell, Alisa Jordheim, Scott Quinn – February 2, 2019] was the villainous Princess Clarice. It was Clarice who plotted the demise of the Prince, which would make her the surviving heir to the kingdom’s throne. Anderson’s Clarice was aided in her villainy by Leander, played haughtily by Pennsylvania bass-baritone Zachary Altman. Both Altman and Anderson were persuasive in their vocal projection of evil intent.

[Below: Princess Clarice (Alissa Anderson, right) suggests to Leander (Zachary Altman, left) various ways to murder her rival for the throne; edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

Scott Conner’s King of Clubs, Will Liverman’s Pantaloon, Zachary James’ Cook, Ben Wager’s Farfarello and Other Cast Members

Kansas bass Scott Conner was a vocally strong, striking presence as the authoritative, wheelchair=bound King of Clubs. Last year, I had praised Conner’s performance in the principal comic role of Mustafa Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Delightful “Italian Girl in Algiers” – July 25, 2018. Previously, I reviewed Conner’s singing of comprimario roles in Verdi and Puccini in San Francisco Opera Verdi and Puccini operas, in which he made a positive impression.

The King’s principal aide Pantaloon was sympathetically portrayed by Illinois baritone Will Liverman. An energetic performer, Liverman possesses a rich sounding baritone. This summer Liverman impressed me as Schaunard [Review: A Magnificent Mimi Leads a Youthful “Boheme” Cast – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2019] and the “Jenufa” Mill Foreman at the Santa Fe Opera. I also previously noted a 2014 “Capriccio” performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in which Liverman joined Jonathan Johnson as two of the servants of Renee Fleming’s Countess.

[Below: the King of Clubs (Scott Conner, right) is attended to by Pantaloon (Will Liverman, left); edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

Two other cast members deserve mention – the Farfarello of Pennsylvania bass-baritone Ben Wager and the Cook of Florida bass Zachary James. The fantastical Farfarello is a wacky character whose presence is accompanied by some of Prokofiev’s most inspired music.

[Below: Farfarello (Ben Wager, center) employs a fan to whisk the Prince (Jonathan Johnson, left) and Farfarello (Barry Banks, right) on their quest to find the three oranges; edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

The prize for the most absurd costume (a creation of Italian designer Manuel Pedretti) should go hands down to Florida bass Zachary James as the Cook, who, wearing a dress that resembled a giant chicken, sang menacingly while waving a giant ladle.

[Below: Zachary James as the Cook; edited image,based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

Indiana tenor Corey Don Bonar was the Master of Ceremonies. Pennsylvania bass Frank Mitchell was the Herald. The princesses inhabiting oranges were sung by California mezzo-soprano Kendra Broom as Nicoletta and Iowa mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht as Linetta. Mississippi soprano Tiffany Townsend sang gloriously in the role of the surviving princess Ninetta.

Maestro Corrado Rovaris and the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus

Prokofiev composed some of his most brilliant music for “Love of Three Oranges”, whose highlights, including its familiar March, are incorporated into his famous symphonic suite.

The richly melodic work was given a rousing performance by the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra, under the leadership of Opera Philadelphia’s Italian Music Director Maestro Corrado Roavaris.

[Maestro Corrado Rovaris; edited image, based on a publicity photograph for]

Italian designer Justin Arienti created the scenic design. Polish designer Ran Arthur Braun created the Action Design, Italian designer Giuseppe Calabro the lighting. Texas designer David Zimmerman supervised wigs and make-up.

The large, boisterous and bizarrely costumed chorus performed brilliantly under the leadership of Pennsylvania Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden.

Alessandro Talevi’s Production

Italian director Alessandro Talevi has conceived his production of the “Love for Three Oranges” as a memorial of the journey taken by the opera’s composer Sergei Prokofiev, from the Saint Petersburg of the Russian Revolution of 1917, to the United States. It was during Prokofiev’s visit that Chicago’s principal opera company of the era commissioned Prokofiev to compose the opera.

[Below: the Prince (Jonathan Johnson, left) and Truffaldino (Barry Banks, center) find themselves with the three oranges in a Southwestern United States desert; edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

The opera has metaphorical elements. It represents a surreality countering the dramatic realism promoted by Prokofiev’s countryman Stanislavsky. It embraces the energies of American music, at the dawn of what was to become the Jazz Age. countering what Prokofiev perceived as the conservativism of post-World War I European music.

[Below: the Prince (Jonathan Johnson, left) falls in love with the Princess Ninetta (Tiffany Townsend, right); edited image, based on a Kelly & Massa photograph, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.]

Imbued with the farcical spirit of Italian commedia dellarte, the opera’s surreal plot and adventurous harmonies represented Prokofiev’s rebellion against stultifying convention.


I recommend the Opera Philadelphia cast and Talevi’s productxion, both for the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.

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