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'Little Prince' Drowned in High-Fructose Corn Syrup

John Kapusta (Snake) and Henry Wager (Little Prince) in Rachel Portman's The Little Prince,
Washington National Opera, 2014 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince is really not a book for children. My own kids have steadfastly resisted it for years, but many adults retrospectively think of it as a magical book for children. It never will be, but that did not prevent composer Rachel Portman and her librettist, British playwright Nicholas Wright, from making this morality tale for preoccupied adults, written in a child-like style, into a children's opera. Even with several dollops of sentimental children's chorus and the sugar-sweet staging of director Francesca Zambello, imported this weekend to Washington National Opera and seen on Friday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, this version of The Little Prince is a dull affair.

The opera introduces the children's chorus as a group of kids listening to the Pilot, a stand-in for Saint-Exupéry himself, tell the story of his crash landing. The opening backdrop (sets and costumes by Maria Björnson) shows the author's Drawing Number Two, made when he was a child, the X-ray version of the lumpy thing in his Drawing Number One, which adults thought was a hat but which was, of course, a scary snake digesting an enormous elephant. The Pilot then describes the appearance of the Little Prince, retelling the story of his home planet and the other planets he visited before he arrived on Earth, set as a series of comic vignettes, the Vain Man, the Businessman, and so on, ending with the Lamplighter to conclude the first act. Portman's score is saccharine, Hollywood stuff, leaning heavily on harp and glockenspiel in conjunction with the numerous children's chorus bits, as if the whole thing were a tear-jerking flashback.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Washington National Opera’s tuneful ‘Little Prince’ pleases kids — or does it? (Washington Post, December 21)

---, From Grown-Ups, a 'Little Prince' for Children (New York Times, November 14, 2005)

Robert Devaney, A Talk With 12-Year-Old 'Little Prince,' His Sister and Mom (The Georgetowner, December 18)
The performances were capable all around, beginning with treble Henry Wager, also seen in last year's regrettable holiday opera The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, whose pristine high notes as the Little Prince were helped more than a little by amplification (the only voice so treated, somewhat incongruously). The Pilot was given plenty of volume by baritone Christian Bowers, last heard in a supporting role in Moby-Dick, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist who, hopefully because of nerves rather than something more fundamental, seemed not always sure of his rhythm.

John Kapusta hammed it up as both the Vain Man, with his yellow fat suit and kazoo, and the smooth-tongued, bright green, menacing Snake, and Miss Ionarts did not even realize that they were played by the same singer. Wei Wu deployed his ample bass voice on the rather boring aria of the King, while Lisa Williamson's Rose was a little warbly. The best supporting part was the Fox, sung beautifully by mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano. Ultimately, though, too many things are missing, like the "lovely peal" of the Little Prince's laugh, which the narrator says, "irritated me very much," to make this an effective adaptation of the book. In spite of the libretto's rhymed lines, which reduce a profound but already slightly twee book to doggerel platitudes, the story was still a bit lofty for Miss Ionarts, who liked the colorful presentation but had many questions about just what the story was all about.

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