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CD Review: The Little Prince Opera

The Little Prince (Opera) *** 1/2


Sony Classical 5187492

Disc One: 15 tracks - 55:12    Disc Two: 14 tracks - 45:17

DVD: Sony Classical SVD 58846

Oscar-winner Rachel Portman takes a break from film music and tries her hand at opera. The changeover is not as daunting as you might imagine, since this particular opera is based on the popular children's book, Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The classic novel concerns a little prince who wanders the planets looking for friends, and meets an unfortunate aviator who has landed in the Sahara Desert. The prince tells stories of his many adventures, sort of a Canterbury Tales for the "les enfants explorateurs" set. Portman's wonderfully inventive score is the opera's big asset. From the mournful violin and flute introduction in the opening number, "The Pilot," to the joyous finale, Portman's music is accessible to younger listeners, but will capture adults as well.

Sony Classical has released both the full DVD and CD of the BBC-TV version that aired on PBS's Great Performances earlier this year. The production, directed by Francesca Zambello, with set and costumes by the late Maria Bjørnson, is based on their work with the Houston Grand Opera's World Premiere in 2003, which has since been seen in Milwaukee Skylight Opera and Boston Lyric Opera. The opera will have its New York premiere at the New York City Opera in November 2005 with Joseph McManners of the BBC production to reprise his role for his stage debut as The Little Prince.

While the score is immensely moving and simple, the production and lyrics (by playwright Nicholas Wright) are too busy for my tastes. While the inspiration for the look of the opera is based on de Saint-Exupéry's illustrations for the book, the staging, at least for the TV version, is awfully precious at some moments and overtly theatrical at others. Both the book and the opera focus too much on the pilot at the beginning, which, except for the cool flying effects, will have young attention spans wandering. Only when the prince has his many adventures does the opera truly engage. The last cravat is the lack of humor to Wright's mostly dry libretto. Because of this British version of childhood (where's the Harry Potter magic when we need it?), Zambello felts the impulse to "cute" the production up needlessly.

Still, the BBC production does inspire wonder and highlights Portman's most successful vignettes. The pilot's (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) opening number includes the most elegant of Portman's score, which takes off in a stirring moment of flight. McManners' performance as The Little Prince is competent. Hesitant in spots, McManners will only grow into the part when he makes it to New York. Of course, the Rose (Mairead Carlin) is important in the story, and Portman's music for her is both playful and mournful. "Magical" is the only word to describe the Act One finale of Lamplighters. But the highlight is British soprano Leslie Garrett's "The Fox," in the second act. Her performance, along with Portman's music, in this section melted all adult reservations out of my body, and touched the inner-child wonder in me.

Opera, with its elongation of words, may confuse the younger listeners at first; even I wished there was subtitles on the DVD, but the CD has the full libretto. The CD can be enjoyed on its own (especially if you have knowledge of the book), but for those new to The Little Prince, I recommend a viewing of the DVD or a live production to get the full effect of this lovely evocation of childhood and innocence.     -- Cary Wong

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