It makes perfect sense for Houston Grand Opera to revive its 2003 world premiere, The Little Prince, for the holiday season. After all, the holidays are all about the little ones, and there's plenty in the Rachel Portman/Nicholas Wright opera for them to enjoy. Kids love seeing other kids on stage, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved 1943 children's book is a perfect subject for an opera, especially a child's first one.
The story of Academy Award-winning composer Portman's first opera is kid-friendly, though it's more philosophy than plot. The Little Prince is from a tiny planet called Asteroid B-612. He embarks on a voyage through the universe, stopping for one aria each with the King, the Vain Man, the Drunkard, the Lamplighter, the Businessman and the Geographer. All are too busy with their "serious" work -- even the Drunkard is serious about drinking -- to pay any attention to the world around them and see what they might be missing. When the ancient Geographer, who writes about the physical world but has never seen any of it, suggests that the Prince go to Earth to seek his happiness, the little guy floats away, accompanied by paper cranes held aloft by sticks.
Earth is where the Little Prince meets the Pilot (Joshua Hopkins), who has crashed in the Sahara. The sudden appearance of this strange little boy wandering in the desert doesn't faze the Pilot, and the Little Prince teaches him to hear the laughter of the stars. The Prince also befriends a wild Fox (Fiona Murphy), meets a field of Roses, listens to the Water (Laquita Mitchell) and confronts his nemesis, the Snake (Nicholas Phan), whose fearsome bite will dispatch him to his asteroid home, where his beloved Rose (Heidi Stober) awaits.
The tale of a "world outside of time," imbued with misty poetic ruminations on the wonders of life and a distrust of grown-ups who don't take time to smell the roses, has been a continuing favorite of both adults and children since its publication. Its simple, gentle message -- "trust your heart" -- is the moral that both the extraterrestrial Little Prince and the Pilot learn by final curtain.
Before his plane was shot down over Marseilles during a World War II spy mission, French author Saint-Exupéry was a national treasure, known for both his pioneering aviation work and his novels and stories about his love of flying. The Lyon airport is named after him, as is, appropriately, an asteroid.
Except for Harrison Gerald Moore as the Businessman, the cast is drawn from HGO's Opera Studio program, and these young singers are exemplary. The roles of the singing stars are performed by a superb children's chorus. As the Pilot, Hopkins has a clarion baritone and an appealing, warm stage presence. The hero is sung by a little boy -- Jeffrey Allison at the opening matinee performance (Jeffrey Walter will sing in the December 16 and 18 shows). Eleven-year-old Allison is already an established little pro and a proficient boy soprano, and he's in only the sixth grade.
Francesca Zambello's magical production is another plus, assisted wonderfully by Maria Bjørnson's storybook and her minimal sets and fanciful costumes, as well as Rick Fisher's ravishingly colorful lighting. But whether Portman's somewhat subdued musical setting of this classic tale will equally win over the little tykes is up for debate.
The Little Prince is a sweet, tender tale, but Portman's atmospheric score is a little too sweet and tender. Although Portman's impeccable credentials as a film composer (Chocolat, Emma) are in bloom in her short melodies and clever orchestrations, everything's on the same plain. Musically, it's a plateau. Granted, the story doesn't have much dramatic variation, either. But the Water's wordless vocalise and the poignant songs of the Stars receive handsome treatment, and they're the opera's most lasting memories.
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