Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Opera



Donald Macleod focuses on the first opera to which Prokofiev gave an opus number.

Sergei Prokofiev was bitten early by the opera bug; when he was eight, his parents took him to see Gounod's Faust at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and it was love at first sight. On returning home, he announced that he was going to compose an opera of his own, which he promptly did - The Giant was no giant leap for mankind, but for the young Prokofiev it was the first step on a path that would wind throughout his life, culminating in his operatic masterpiece, War and Peace. That early trip to the Bolshoi also exposed the fledgling composer to Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, sparking, too, a lifelong engagement with ballet; he was putting the finishing touches to his last ballet score on his dying day. The same fascination for the interaction of sound and story lies behind his incidental music for film and theatre, the latter little-known today, but the former including classic collaborations with the pioneering Russian director Sergei Eisenstein - and, of course, Lt KijÚ. So all this week, Donald Macleod explores Prokofiev's music for stage and screen, with extracts from the majority of his opera and ballet scores, and a good selection of his film and theatre music.

In Monday's programme, Maddalena, the first opera Prokofiev gave an opus number to; the Scythian Suite, which started life as Ala and Lolli, an abortive commission from Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes; The Buffoon, a Diaghilev commission that this time went full-term - 'the tale', in the composer's words, 'of the buffoon who outwits seven other buffoons'; and an operatic gamble that eventually paid off, The Gambler, which climaxes in a scene of relentless momentum, set in the frenzied atmosphere of a casino.


Donald Macleod focuses Prokofiev ballets and operas, including The Love for Three Oranges.

In Tuesday's programme, a pair of ballets and a pair of operas, both highly contrasted.

The ballets are Trapeze, a concise chamber score written for a small travelling dance troupe, and Le pas d'acier - 'The Steel Step' - a 'futurist' ballet glorifying Soviet proletarian society (the Soviet authorities were reportedly not amused).

The operas are the utterly absurd and perennially popular The Love for Three Oranges, and the esoteric, melodramatic and much less familiar The Fiery Angel, a remarkable work which Prokofiev himself never saw staged.


Donald Macleod explores a Prokofiev theatrical rarity and his most famous ballet.

In Wednesday's programme, a theatrical rarity, Egyptian Nights; Prokofiev's last and hugely successful collaboration with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, The Prodigal Son; its commercially unsuccessful follow-up, On the Dnieper; his first, speculative venture onto celluloid, the now fabulously well-known and aforementioned Lt KijÚ; and one of his most enduring successes in any genre, the ballet Romeo and Juliet.


Donald Macleod explores Prokofiev works, encompassing Soviet realism and frothy comedy.

In Thursday's programme, Prokofiev's incidental music for a staged version of Eugene Onegin, in which the composer proves that less can be more; Alexander Nevsky, his first Eisenstein collaboration; his 'Soviet' opera Semyon Kotko, a magnificent score despite the composer's preoccupation with staying 'on message' with the authorities; at the other end of the operatic scale, the light-hearted Betrothal in a Monastery, based on Sheridan's extravagant 18th-century comedy of manners The Duenna or The Double Elopement; and music from the ballet Cinderella, in one of its incarnations for solo piano.

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Donald Macleod explores Prokofiev's operas War on Peace and Story of a Real Man.

The final programme of the week ranges from the sublime to the abject; Prokofiev measures up magnificently to Tolstoy in his operatic presentation of War and Peace, but his Story of a Real Man is a doomed attempt to appease the Soviet authorities - by this point in his career, the composer was irretrievably out of favour with Stalin. Before things had got that far, Prokofiev collaborated for the second and last time with Sergei Eisenstein, on the film Ivan the Terrible, which was at least partly to Stalin's taste. And to finish, music from the composer's last completed work, The Tale of the Stone Flower.