Hitching a ride through the galaxy with The Little Prince last week, the audience discovered magical delights in the opera and such truths that grown-ups never are capable of telling, perhaps, as the story tells us, because they are so strange. So, I went straight to the children.
“Oooh, look at this!” cries out a little boy in the lobby outside the Terrace Theatre, looking gleefully at some drawings of costumes and props. He points to a picture of a golden-haired boy pulling on a string of three volcanoes that barely come up to his waist. “I remember that part in the book!” he announces proudly to his grandmother, recalling he read it by himself, though he is only six.
Everett Keller, quite a bit older and attending Somerset Middle School, is himself a performer, and chuckles appreciatively upon entering the theatre at the bright white curtain painted with a giant reproduction of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original drawing of a boa constrictor having just devoured an elephant. “I love it! This is going to be good.” And at intermission he pronounced, “I like all the costumes—especially the hunters’!”
The colorful set and costumes are by Maria Björnson, and the children seem to understand in so many ways how her work has defined the whole production. Not just in color and whimsy, but the work is also tinged with a sweet sadness. Björnson’s untimely death before this production opened resonates with Saint-Exupéry’s own death. The French writer had been an early twentieth-century pilot and flown over the desert just like his central character of the Pilot in the show. His death in a plane crash seems prescient as the designer’s own demise and creates a mythological arc for the piece that is part of its mystery and lasting value as a work.
Christian Bowers as the pilot and Henry Wager as the golden- haired boy share the stage for most of the evening, and what a glowing duo they make. Bowers, with his warm baritone sound and imposing physical presence, brings a kind of protective dignity to the pilot’s relationship with a little boy and, from his point of view, the child is part hallucination after his plane crashed in the desert and part a little boy who eats up time with his many stories. ”Eight days I have been listening to you!” sings Bowers with uncharacteristic impatience. He cautions the boy of life’s dangers and the need to deal more seriously with serious matters. But it is the Little Prince who schools him.
Henry Wager as The Little Prince and Christian Bowers as The Pilot (Photo: Scott Suchman)
Librettist Nicholas Wright has remained faithful to the novella’s most memorable lines, and Wager makes this Prince jump off the page. His frail figure, clothed in a faded grass-green jump suit with a little yellow scarf flung carelessly around his throat – and those curls, golden as in a fairy tale – captures perfectly Saint-Exupéry’s creation. Wager delivers his soprano lines without mishap, and his singing captures superbly the pure and sweet core of this character. Moreover, the talented singer-actor stays engaged physically on stage, every step of the way, responding with his eyes and his whole body to the swirl of encounters around him.
All the people singing this story are very good indeed. Everett again: “I like the Rose! I like the snake though he is a little bit scary. I really like the Fox!”
Rachel Portman is the composer, whom Everett’s uncle knows, he informs me, is known for her luscious cinematic treatments, notably the Academy Award winning score of Emma. Here she has chosen a style that reminded me of simple slightly melancholic melodies taken from folk tunes of Ralph Vaughn Williams music, but like his music also they convey spirituality The lovely chorus of children singing throughout the opera imbues a shimmering quality to the tale.
The textures come through the different characters’ musical themes (think Peter and the Wolf) which artfully support the strengths of the splendid cast of the mostly Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists as if the songs were made on them “like a glove” (despite the opera having originated in Houston almost a decade ago.) So, The King gets plenty of clashing brass featuring bass singer Wei Wu’s impeccable diction and clarity of sound. The Rose sung by Lisa Williamson displayed her “petals well” in a virtuosic soprano aria of trills and thrills. Patrick O’Halloran was terrific as the young Lamplighter and his singing, including his duet with the young Prince, was most affecting.
Aleksandra Romano as Fox sings what will become the work’s most treasured solo. This singer-actress represents the best of the new operatic training and integrated performance, crawling on her knees, romping across the stage and popping up from underground “burrows” yet never sounding strained or breathless. Romano blends both playfulness and touching sentiment as she curbs her own wildness, allowing herself to be touched and tamed, and achieves what is perhaps the most enchanting character of the evening.
Finally, John Kapusta gets the most of his double duty. (All the adult performers in fact keep popping up in different guises, and all the performers appear at times in pajamas, reminding us of the story-book-bedtime-story quality of this imaginative and winning tale.) Kapusta transforms himself rather magically from playing The Vain Man, a puffed-up buffoon in a ridiculous, electrifying-yellow costume, prancing and delighting all the children, then scaring us all as The Snake when he enters pulling a giant tail, all black-lipped, greenish-blue, slithering and evil (see Everett’s comment above.)
But, the heart of this story is conveyed through the encounter of a man and a little boy, fallen to earth from another planet who begins to teach the stranded pilot about the value of love and the preciousness of our home planet. Along the way, both seem to grow souls, as shiny as the chorus of children who bring many a smile and even a tear to us as they sing about the joy of flying, the beauty of the earth that beckons, and the preciousness of friendship and responsibility towards our fellow beings.
Conductor Nicole Paiement, in her debut with the opera company, conducts both the singers and the WNO’s orchestra with dexterity and pace. Artistic Director Francesca Zambello seems to have been in her element directing this terrific ensemble.
This is the third year Zambello has enticed the multi-media-minded generation of children away from their small screens to take in the unique magic of sound and visuals that is opera. To my mind, this holiday opera by the WNO was the best one yet. The Little Prince is playing to sold out houses.
But you better not cry! Rather get yourself organized to see the next operas coming up this season – Dialogues of the Carmelites and The Flying Dutchman– though for these productions, you might want to leave your little ones tucked in their beds.
The Little Prince ran for 5 performances, Dec 19 – 21, 2014.
The Little Prince . Music by Rachel Portman . Libretto by Nicholas Wright . Based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry . Directed by Francesca Zambello . Conducted by Nicole Paiement . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.