High Flier

With apologies to Ms. Gertrude Stein, when is a rose not a rose not a rose not a rose? Maybe when she reminds you of a dancing cigarette pack.

Somehow, when reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1943 The Little Prince, I never imagined the rose strutting around with thorns glued to green tights and petals up over her head. But let's not nitpick: The late Maria Bjørnson's sets and costumes for Houston Grand Opera's 27th world premiere are mostly dazzling and innovative. They are, in fact, one of the best things about The Little Prince, which is more musical theater (à la Disney) than hard-core opera.

The classic tale focuses on a young prince regaling the pilot of a downed plane with stories of greed, love and death. The difficulty of bringing this fable to the opera has been remarkably handled by a creative team with more than its share of awards, from Oliviers to Oscars. Nicholas Wright wrote the libretto, Francesca Zambello directed, and Rachel Portman composed the eminently hummable score. Among them they have worked on the films Emma and Chocolat, Disney's Aladdin and Phantom of the Opera. This team knows magic, and they manage to put it on stage in The Little Prince. What they can't do is make the tale dramatically sustain its run of two hours and ten minutes. While this is short by opera standards, even my seatmate, an avowed Little Prince fan, was restless two-thirds through the first act. Several children in the audience didn't fare much better.

That raises a question: Is this a children's opera? While HGO doesn't bill it exactly as such, it is certainly meant to be an opera with wide appeal. The cartoon costumes of the characters the prince meets in his interplanetary travels delight the young and young at heart, although some of the vignettes seem to drag. But the adult themes -- greed, love and death -- may require some after-opera discussion with little ones.

Adults will find appeal in the creative set design, a circular wall with window openings for pop-up performers and the central sand dunes with the plane wreckage. An explosion of letters when the plane crashes, a blast of glitter from the proscenium sides for the finale, and the loving way the prince flies between planets are great special effects. They make up for the Elmer Fudd foxhunters and the dancing broccoli, which are a little too over-the-top for grown-ups.

But the real magic here comes from the children. In a brilliant move, a chorus of kids is used to portray both the audience for the tale as well as the stars and cranes, central to the story. The pajama-clad children with tiny flashlights in hand sing the stars' observations and then circle the stage with origami cranes on sticks during the prince's travels. They rely on talent to pull the viewer through the tale without dragging the narrative down. (Karen Reeves has done a superb job here).

Which brings us to 11-year-old Nathaniel Irvin, boy soprano extraordinaire. It's hard to imagine this opera without him. He is the essence of the prince, a remarkable innocent with an angel's voice and the stage presence of a performer three times his age. He brings to mind the baby-faced Brit Mark Lester of Oliver! HGO, in a rare move, understandably mikes him for this performance. While he sometimes is drowned out by the chorus, his amazing vocal strength -- Irvin sings for almost the entire performance -- makes him alone worth the price of admission.

More good news is baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes in his HGO debut as the pilot. He's a strong vocalist with good dramatic interpretation and a striking stage presence. That forms the perfect fit to Portman's more populist musical stylings. Rhodes and Irvin have real chemistry, more so than some of the traditional male-female pairings seen this season.

The Little Prince was to have premiered last season but was pushed back because of (pick one) either financial difficulties or creative complications. As a result, in a season billed as the year of the diva, we have scant diva here. It should be noted that French mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand comes through blazingly as the fox, with a gorgeous face and winning smile inside that charming suit.

She croons that "anything essential is invisible to the eye," the central truth to the fable, but the essentials to this Little Prince are very visible, and very entertaining.

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Marene Gustin