The Little Prince returned to earth this past weekend, filling the newly renovated Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center with a veritable feast of sound and sights. “Amazing!” pronounced Kiko, a first grader from Olney, Md, attending opera for the first time.
She then proceeded to school the grown ups, some twenty-five of them who had gathered at a little post-opera party, on the merits of the work. She proved that not only could a young child follow Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s magical tale but could fathom the work’s deeper meaning of friendship and the necessary learning of responsibility when one creates a relationship and, in taming a wild creature, learns to see with the heart. In this introduction, she also has become a delighted fan of opera.
Twelve years ago Washington National Opera’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello was instrumental in gathering the forces (including composer Rachel Portman and librettist Nicolas Wright) to turn Saint-Exupéry’s classic into a family opera. This team has wrought a little gem in the tradition of Amahl and The Night Visitors.
I had seen the work when Zambello brought it to the Kennedy Center in 2014 as a holiday special. I remembered well the captivating performance of the golden haired little boy and his touching friendship with an aviator whose plane has crashed in the desert.
This time what moved me most was the visual landscape and the ways the elements of design worked to recreate on the stage the sparkling imagination of Saint-Exupéry and captivate the next generation at every turn. Starting with the author’s famous drawing of the boa constrictor having swallowed an elephant enlarged as a giant front curtain for the show, Maria Björnson created a marvelous whimsical circus of color and cartoon shapes in the costumes that pop against a desert expanse for the masterful play of light on sand and sky by lightning designer Mark McCullough.
The world of this set has a logic not unlike the Little Prince’s diminutive planet. Onto the stage, our hero pulls his three tiny volcanoes on a string like a toddler’s toy train then proceeds to fry an egg on top of one crater, flipping it handily, while heating up some coffee on another. A street lamp appears “standing” rakishly upside down and angled from the top corner of the proscenium.
Also gorgeous was the shimmering sound of WNO’s children’s chorus. Hats off to Zambello’s on-going commitment to developing a children’s chorus and hence an appetite in our next generation for beautiful vocal sound! Her efforts have paid off. These young singers have never sounded better.
The children’s chorus spends most of the opera in pajamas as befitting the work’s framing device of a bedtime story. These singers are fully integrated into the entire performance and, aided by the skillful duo of Children’s Chorus Master Steven Gathman and Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, comport themselves with the highest degree of professionalism. Ever on the move, they swoop around the stage singing, “Cranes are flying; we’re in the air” to a lovely ballet of puppet white birds carried on tall sticks. Then, in another scene, they appear as lamplighters who weave through the auditorium carrying lanterns that become little pinpricks of light in a vast starry sky while these performers vocally maintain tight harmonic integrity.
In structure the piece reminds me of another holiday favorite, the ballet The Nutcracker, where the full ensemble performers get to take a turn in vignettes that show off their special skills and personalities. In this opera, the parade takes the form of a series of very strange adults encountered by the Prince in his sojourn on earth.
We all have our favorites. For my young friend Pete, bass Timothy J. Bruno as the king, rolling in on a tipped high chair that defied gravity, knocked him out with his wild antics and deep swooping voice. Kiko loved Arnold Livingston Geis and noted the talented singer-actor did quadruple duty, changing his shape and sound to play The Snake with a slitheringly long tail and The Vain Man a bouncing vision in an electric-yellow suit to name just two of the characters. Alexander McKissick did similar marathon duty and as The Lamplighter he excelled vocally, while Christopher Kenney as The Businessman delivered a dizzying patter song that was positively jaw-dropping.
This same quartet of male singers were never more amusingly entertaining than as The Hunters, moving bow-legged and crab-like wanna-be John Waynes.
Madison Leonard gave a stand-out performance as The Rose whom the Little Prince loves. Never has a singer and her costume been so one, as she pulled the petals up like a stole to become a tight bud then unfurling them all the while trilling deliciously to show off her deliciousness as a songbird. She was joined by Raquel González and Allegra De Vita who then became a trio of roses. González also shared her beautiful warm sound as The Water, while De Vita dazzled us all as the jack-in-the-box fox popping up all over the stage and rolling playfully with the Little Prince before teaching him the heartbreak and ecstatic joy of inter-species friendship.
There is some gorgeous music by Portman, and James Lowe, who made his WNO debut as conductor for the show, gets the most out of it. I did notice however that the episodic nature of the story creates various holes by abruptly breaking off in between scenes before a new tune starts up. The work thus lacks a certain musical cohesion.
Nonetheless, in this iteration, the opera seemed tighter, coming in considerably under two hours including an intermission.
If perhaps Michael Adams as the pilot and Holden Browne as the golden-haired boy who rescues him emotionally don’t have quite the same chemistry as Christian Bowers and Henry Wager in WNO’s last production, nonetheless these leads carry the show ably and prove every bit as vocally strong.
Thank you, Madame Z and WNO singers, for making this my favorite holiday tradition.
– The Little Prince closed Sunday, December 17, 2017.
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 James Lowe. Set and Costume Designed by Maria Björnson. Lighting designed by Mark McCullough. Choreography by Eric Sean Fogel. Children’s Chorus Master Steven Gathman. With Michael Adams, Holden Browne, Timothy J. Bruno, Arnold Livingston Geis, Raquel Gonzalez, Christopher Kenney, Madison Leonard, Alexander McKissick, Allegra De Vita, and Washington National Opera’s Children’s Chorus and National Opera Orchestra. Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith and some friends.