The Operas of Sergei Prokofiev

Christina Guillaumier’s new book The Operas of Sergei Prokofiev is the first book in the English language to engage with Prokofiev’s operatic output in its entirety. The book draws on a wealth of archival material and other sources, and also looks at those juvenile works that are unpublished as well as the incomplete works composed towards the end of his life. For scholars, performers, and fans of Prokofiev’s music (and twentieth-century Russian music more generally), this book is a must for your shelves.

Today we’re excited to share this fantastic Prokofiev Listicle Professor Guillaumier kindly put together for our blog, plus a Spotify playlist so that you can listen to some of the arias and movements as you read. We hope you enjoy!

Having spent most of the past few years of my life rummaging in archives, listening, watching, rehearsing and collating parts of Prokofiev’s operatic output, I found it surprisingly difficult to choose a select number of pieces that would give an honest musical portrait of him as an opera composer. The selection I put forward here includes some pieces that are more regularly heard now that some of Prokofiev’s operas, like ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Fiery Angel’ are gaining a solid foothold in the repertoire. Many opera lovers will no doubt have heard and even seen live stagings of both ‘Love for Three Oranges’ as well as ‘War and Peace’. While these works are extraordinary both in themselves and for the times they were written in, there are so many other gems that deserve to be equally well known.

Writing this book about the operas has taught me a great deal about music as a creative art, its place in our life and society (particularly important these days) and especially about music and resilience. Prokofiev’s path to opera was fraught with difficulty, with some commentators suggesting he was an absolute failure at it. There are a great deal of things that we know now about Prokofiev and his operatic output now, that will help us better understand the work of this twentieth-century titan. 

Maddalena Op. 13

Prokofiev’s first complete opera was Maddalena. He only orchestrated the Overture and the first scene in 1912 because other projects and life events prevented him from completing it. It was an opera he wrote for his peers at the St Petersburg Conservatory, but it was considered too difficult to stage at the time. There are qualities of Prokofiev’s orchestral writing that are reminiscent of his first experimental works for orchestra such as Dreams and Autumnal Sketch. The harmonies are chromatic, with none of the composer’s later penchant for unresolved or phantom cadences and with no hint of his dissonant melodic markers. But these extracts tell us a lot about where Prokofiev came from musically, and demonstrate his initial approach to orchestral writing, which he disavowed soon after.

The Gambler

Act IV Scene 2 has always struck me as a veritable coup de théâtre in Prokofiev’s The Gambler. It takes us right into the delirious and frenetic atmosphere of the casino, where Alexei, the gambler of the work’s title, thinks he is playing for the highest of stakes –the reputation of the woman he loves. In truth, as the scene unfolds, gradually and with theatrical precision, it becomes abundantly clear to the audience thate Alexei is playing only for himself, feeding and fuelling his gambling obsession. There are many reasons why this scene made in onto my list – it encapsulates the very best and most distinctive elements of Prokofiev’s operatic vision. The characters, all gamblers, surrounding Alexei, are drawn with craft and care. Each possesses a specific trait, and these can be heard in the music. Prokofiev controls the theatrical rhythm carefully and precisely, in turns giving the gamblers a time to divulge something about themselves, all with the eventual aim of placing Alexei within the context he is most comfortable in. When Alexei breaks the bank, the depth of his addiction is compellingly brought to life. Prokofiev lavished care and attention on this scene, returning to revise it ten years after he had first completed the work in 1917. His efforts were not in vain: the multiple layers of the scene, the multiplicity of singular passions woven into this episode, the overall atmosphere of obsessive frenzy – this comes to life in a way that Tchaikovsky’s game scenes in The Queen of Spades do not.

Love for Three Oranges Op. 33

Perhaps Prokofiev’s most famous opera is ‘Love for Three Oranges’, and there is good reason for this enchanting opus to be in the repertoire of our opera houses. The depiction of the underworld and the supernatural, which opened possibilities of imagination that the composer relished, continued to be my favourite. In Act I, Scene 2, two magicians, Fata Morgana and Tchelio engage in a dramatic fight to determine who is the most powerful, observed by various imps and devils who comment enthusiastically about the proceedings. The octatonic scale runs through the entire scene – Prokofiev builds frenetic lines as well as abrupt vocal and percussive punctuations.

Fiery Angel Op. 37

The themes of obsession and the supernatural are brought together in this scene (Act I,  Scene: Renata, the half-madonna half-witch protagonist of Fiery Angel, is preparing to host a séance. With her is the errant knight Ruprecht who is only there because he is in lust with her. Here Prokofiev pushes the vocal line to its extremities. The role of Renata is not one a soprano would undertake lightly, although we are beginning to see more recent productions of the work. The vocal lines and utterances are built around the contours of the syllables and sounds of the Russian language, a crucial element of Prokofiev’s operatic vision, drawn from his love of theatre and the spoken word.

Semyon Kotko Op.81

Almost all of Prokofiev’s operas have one big scene which functions as a dramatic focus, and tends to occur two-thirds into the opera. In the earlier part of his career, Prokofiev preferred to end an act on a cliff-hanger. There are many such moments in Semyon Kotko, which is set in the aftermath of the first world war with Semyon’s village under German military command. The fire scene in Act III showcases Prokofiev’s virtuosic management of large scale structures like the ostinato. Multiple voices of anguish, fear and horror can be heard here and Prokofiev ensures the declamation of their lines is clear – most heart-rending is that of Lyubka whose lover is now a prisoner and about to be executed by the Germans. The characterisation of the Germans in this scene is typical Prokofiev. The choir describes events through short, repeated, melodic lines – Lyubka’s descent into madness can be heard over this – poignant and ever more urgent, the economical melodic motif is nonetheless powerful and supported by the ostinato, full textures of the orchestra.

Betrothal in a Monastery Op. 86

Prokofiev wrote this opera swiftly and energetically. Perhaps it was because he had found some personal happiness and peace in his life at this point, but more likely it was the subject matter and its potential for indulging humour that made this opera so popular. I have selected three episodes from this opera because they display Prokofiev at his most entertaining and loveable. In Act II, Scene 2, the father complains about his strong-willed and stubborn daughter, who refuses to marry the man he has chosen for her: “If you have a daughter, it’s a bane!” The father’s plaintive wail becomes a recurrent motif heard throughout in the opera. In Act III Scene 6, Don Jerome is playing with his friends in his home but their practice is continually being interrupted. Jerome is particularly annoyed by their failure to play in tune. Act IV, Scene 8 is a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the monks drinking and celebrating, in which Prokofiev manages to juxtapose secular if not profane sounds (and content) with echoes of ritual lines.

War and Peace Op. 91

Andrei’s death scene (Act IV, Scene 12) in War and Peace contains some of the composer’s most magical writing. In this scene, the audience is privy to Andrei’s delirium: the atmosphere of suspended time is shaped by long-limbed descending melodic lines, a feature of the composer’s work and the gentle marking of time, and/or Natasha’s heartbeat on the timpani Gradually the music draws us into the mesmerizing reminiscences of a dying man. Gentle woodwind motifs herald the delirium motif – piti-piti-piti. Andrei is not ready for death, but the delirium gently draws him further into the recesses of his own mind. Musical quotes from the opera (for example the reflective episode at the start of the opera, his ball scene with Natasha) remind him of his past life. Natasha’s voice can be heard in the fog. She has finally located his hut on the battlefield. Her voice triggers the beautiful love theme – vintage Prokofiev, and some otherworldly flute playing is food for the soul. Andrei has made peace with himself and slips gently from this world into the next with Natasha by his side.

Story of a Real Man Op. 117

In his last opera, Prokofiev draws from his insights in the genre of film; he had often dreamed of hybrid forms that allowed for opera to embrace elements from film and vice-versa. But by this time in his career, the composer had returned to the Soviet Union and did not have the artistic freedom to play with genres that he would have liked to have. In this work that draws on a contemporary Soviet story about a pilot who is shot down, loses his limbs but recovers to fly again, he explores concepts that clearly demonstrate film is on his mind.

This opera repeatedly forces us to ask the question ‘what if?’. What if Prokofiev had been allowed to explore a fuller integration of two genres so close to his heart? What if he was not subject to the artistic conditions of the Soviet Union? It is clear from some of the stage instructions, that Prokofiev wanted to explore the porous boundary, as he saw it, between opera, theatre and film, suggesting at one point that a silhouette of a plane appears on stage, and manipulating voices electronically to create the effect that he wanted. One wonders what this opera would have sounded like – the story of powerful resilience, self-belief and commitment to a higher cause.

Despite such questions, the opera is a full of excellent theatrical moments, beautiful melodies and humorous characterisations. In Act I, Scene 3, the pilot having crawled from the remains of his damaged aircraft to what he hopes is civilisation. He is discovered by a little boy who is cautious, but eventually brings aid. The pilot is demonstrably relieved to hear people speaking Russian. The boy’s initial fear and disbelief turns into begrudging admiration for this courageous, wounded soldier. This scene demonstrates Prokofiev’s continued preference for declamation and conversational group scenes, both of which remained cornerstones of his operatic vision.

This guest post was written by Christina Guillaumier, a pianist and music historian with an early background in the dramatic arts. She is Head of Undergraduate Programmes at the Royal College of Music.

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