K. E. Watt, Rachel Portman and "The Little Prince" (WattWork, November 13)
Willa J. Conrad, An opera that won't scare the children (Newark Star-Ledger, November 14)
Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: Rachel Portman's The Little Prince at New York City Opera (Playbill Arts, November 15)
David Salvage, "The Little Prince" at City Opera (Sequenza21, November 15)
Peter G. Davis, Pilot Error (New York Magazine, November 28)
Francesca Zambello has directed with a fine, sure hand. The young cast is decent, with Keith Phares getting a workout in the narrator's role of the Pilot and Robert Mack as a sound, sinuous Snake. Other good singers include Joshua Winograde and Hanan Alattar. Gerald Steichen conducts an orchestra so smooth it sounds unctuous. But that's really because of the score: eminently functional, pretty and (Ms. Portman being an adroit film composer) telling the audience what to feel at every turn. What it lacks is a real melodic gift: the tunes may stick in your head afterward, but they sound like jingles. Even more jingly are the clunky rhymes of Nicholas Wright's libretto, which shoves large blocks of text into the story to give the fine children's chorus more to do. Well and good, but the opera would lose nothing (except half an hour) by losing many of these.Fred Kirshnit, who wrote a review (A Hummable Treat for All Ages, November 14) for the New York Sun, proudly claims that he has never read the Saint-Exupéry book and equally proclaims his disapproval of modern opera:
Ms. Portman deserves high praise for creating a score of warm melodic inventiveness, with especially memorable music describing flying, both physical and fanciful. More important, she should be recognized for having the courage to paint her landscapes in the language of diatonic tonality, and for putting the lie to the notion that userfriendly music has gone the way of the dinosaur. She offers singable, hummable music. When was the last time that you read that about an opera composed after 1950?The polemics of the reviewers often came out in their reactions to the music: Portman was often labeled, sometimes derisively, a "film composer." That term seems to indicate immediate comfort for those turned off by modernist dissonance and just as surely marks a sell-out composer to the high-minded. Of all the reviews, I most enjoyed the one by Justin Davidson (A kids' opera hits the mark, November 16) for New York Newsday, because he went in the company of an eight-year-old mini-critic:
Had I been alone at its New York City Opera premiere on Saturday, I might have smirked at the honeyed harmonies and "Greensleeves" turns of phrase, or sulked snobbishly that the adorably costumed creatures onstage had nothing on the magical menagerie in Ravel's "L'enfant et les sortileges." Instead, I was aided by the ears of my demographically correct son, who followed the adventures of his golden-curled alter ego and barely blinked in two hours. Most children's operas - "L'enfant" included - resonate less with kids than with adult imaginings of childhood. Portman, who wrote the soundtracks for "Emma," "Chocolat" and "Cider House Rules," has a film composer's feel for how to stroke an audience and how to nudge wandering emotions into line. "The Little Prince" is among the most direct and effective of contemporary operas, never trying to be something it isn't, never falling short of what it is.A few years ago, Davidson wrote a Father's Day article about being a father and coping with his son's fears (Fear and Fatherhood, July 8, 2002) for Salon. It is also excellent reading. Given the success of this opera, my chances of being able to take my own Mini-Critic to see it one day are better than average.