You might never have heard of British composer Rachel Portman, but chances are you know at least some of her sophisticated film scores. Portman composed the soundtracks for Chocolat and Cider House Rules, among many other notable films, and also the charming music for Benny and Joon, my favorite "guilty-pleasure" Johnny Depp movie.
Her 1996 score for Emma made her the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Original Musical Score. She is enormously talented, and I would be thrilled if she would write even a few more operas.
In 2003, Houston Grand Opera has great foresight when it commissioned and premiered her version of The Little Prince.
HGO has a huge hit with this revival, an opera that seems at first to be an entertainment for children. Like Antoine de Saint-Exupery's famous story, however, it is deceptive, revealing its complications from the very first scene. This is not to say that children don't like complicated work. Rather it is to affirm that The Little Prince functions like all great fairy tales, vivid and enticing to children and still rich with symbolism and philosophical rumination for adults.
Somehow, it seems to fit in perfectly with the Christmas season, though I cannot say why. There aren't any Christmas scenes in the opera, but the general sense of the fantastic makes it kind of a gift to children and adults. It has a festive feel, so I place Portman's opera with classics like Ravel and Colette's L'enfant et les sortileges, which they subtitled "a lyric fantasy in two parts; "Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, and of course Stravinsky's The Nightingale, among many others.
There are a few conditions that make this opera singular, however, and they could complicate the matter of a successful staging. The powerful presence of a children's choir under the direction of Karen Reeves is wonderfully refreshing and dynamic. The chorus begins the opera and continues as a kind of coordinating element throughout the two acts. It is the only chorus in this opera, not just an appendage of an adult choir.
Secondly, the lead role in this work is for a boy soprano, sung capably on opening night by Andy Jones. Where many operas center on heroic conquest, or what can sometimes descend into unrelenting assertion, this one manifests a kind of delicate vulnerability. It requires a confident yet light touch, and HGO has it just right.
On opening night, conductor Bradley Moore did a stunning job keeping everything together, the orchestra in perfect balance with the singers. Jones' singing is amplified, which is disorienting at first, but soon settles in to the point that you forget about it.
If there is anything that bothers me about this piece, it might be Nicholas Wright's mostly rhyming libretto. The best scenes are those in which the language is minimal, or hardly even there. For example, in the second act four grossly distorted hunters waddle on stage, single file, wearing ridiculous and exaggerated safari clothes. They stop, face the audience, and sing "we are hunting a fox."
It is hilarious in its obviousness, a kind of great vaudeville moment, and we don't need a rhyme to finish (or rather, interfere with) the idea. In other parts of the opera, when Wright struggles for a suitable rhyme, he doesn't always find it. It is the only shortcoming in an otherwise greatly successful work.
Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins is well-known to HGO audiences, and he makes a stunning impression as The Pilot. "Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves and it is rather tedious for children to have to explain things to them time and again," the Prince says early on in the story.
Portman has kept the adults and the children quite distinct in this opera, when it would have been tempting to integrate them through too many duets and ensemble work. She knew the adults would dominate that situation. Hopkins' voice is always bright, powerful, somewhat reassuring, in contrast to Jones' waif-like Prince.
There is also something about Hopkins' gentle stance, whenever he is on stage with the Prince, that makes him wonderfully appealing. Particularly poignant is the scene where he carries the sleeping Prince downstage, noticing this his frail body is "more like a shell."
With so many of the adult roles brief and eccentric, it can be easy to forget just how many great singers appear in this production. I was particularly taken with mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky's interpretation of The Fox, a part that requires her to slink about in a red velvet costume. She manages it with great sophistication, and her scene with the Prince was definitely the high point of the second act.
John Kapusta is a terrifying Snake and a desperate Vain Man, making his HGO debut in these peculiar roles. Samuel Schulz's soaring baritone makes for a compelling Business man, and Argentinean bass-baritone Federico de Michelis is a great comic King, something straight out of Lewis Carroll. Pureum Jo is a rather garish Rose; she seems to be pushing her voice a bit, the same problem she had as Becca in HGO's recent premiere of O Columbia.
Something that made me sit up and marvel was D'Ana Lombard's performance as, and I am not kidding you here, Water. It was so unexpected. She appears out of a small door in the latter part of the second act, in a silver mylar flowing wig, and she is a kind of revelation. Of course, Portman wrote for this role a brilliant and brief aria. Lombard made the most out of it, however, recalling Debussy's Melisande, or perhaps a fourth, more reticent and benevolent Rhinemaiden. I am going to watch out for her in upcoming productions.
The late costume and set designer Maria Bjornson is as important to The Little Prince as is Portman. It is unfortunate that she met her demise just before the 2003 world premiere. The Little Prince is both a visual and an auditory work, and it would be impossible to imagine the production without her baobab trees, her flying cranes, her strangely cozy desert.
Take your children, but remember that this opera is just as much for you.