Sergei Prokofiev’s 1946 comic opera, Betrothal in a Monastery, involves trickery, bribery, disguises, an averted arranged marriage, and (in the final act) monks engaged in alcoholic revelry. A twentieth century homage to Italian opera buffa, it is far removed from the cultural and political landscape of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
In 1950, Prokofiev used music from the opera as the basis for the five movement orchestral suite, Summer Night, Op. 123. The boisterous, larger-than-life music which opens the Suite (Introduction: Moderato, ma con brio) is the opera’s brief overture. Prokofiev’s music is filled with quirky melodies which are made up of bizarre leaps and unexpected chromaticism. Here, such a theme emerges boldly and joyfully in the trumpet.
In the second movement (Serenade: Adagio), we hear one of the opera’s shimmering love themes. The music is associated with Antonio and Louisa, a couple whose ultimate success depends on a covert scheme. The theme is simultaneously filled with youthful innocence and an undercurrent of danger.
Next comes a comic, metrically lopsided minuet. It is the buffoonish, satirical music of Louisa’s father, Don Jerome, who is attempting to force her into an arranged marriage with a wealthy but unattractive fisherman.
The fourth movement (Dreams, Nocturne: Andante tranquillo) presents the passionate love theme of the opera’s other principal couple, Clara and Ferdinand. The string section, divided into multiple voices, is transformed into a celestial choir which provides a warm backdrop to the brightness of the solo flute. This rich, cinematic music seems to anticipate lushly romantic film scores to come.
The final movement (Dance) is the joyful and exotic music from the opera’s conclusion. It begins with a sense of hushed anticipation. A sunny, persistently repeating rhythm builds gradually and erupts into a mighty climax.
- Prokofiev: Summer Night, Op. 123, Neeme Järvi, Philharmonia Orchestra chandos.net
- Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra
Featured Image: the premiere of “Betrothal in a Monastery” at the Mariinsky Theatre, November 3, 1946