Apparently I am the only person of my generation who has never read Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince." I am not quite sure whether that is a good or a bad thing, but at least I am better able to judge Rachel Portman's opera, which premiered on Saturday at the New York State Theater, on its own merits.
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?
It's a good thing Ms. Portman makes her living as a film composer: Writing music like this, she would never be admitted to the narrowly astringent world of modern academia. Not that there is any danger of confusing "The Little Prince"with "Rigoletto,"but this music is fresh and lovely enough to be positively uncool. How dare she take the taste and sensibilities of her audience into consideration?
This new City Opera production has a lot going for it. I absolutely loved the set of Maria Bjornson, in which the front of the stage is largely masked by a wall with a circular opening in its center.The opening can expand and contract a little. Looking through, it creates the illusion of peering into an illustrated book. The characters are all correspondingly colorfully dressed, playing nicely off the background of the vast desert where the pilot crashes his biplane.
Those characters form a kaleidoscopic parade as they make their brief appearances in the prince's life. Joshua Winograde as the king appeared to be the most impressive vocalist, while Stephanie Styles as the rose had a few intonational problems. Baritone Keith Phares was fine as the pilot, as was Jennifer Tiller as the fox. Robert Mack made the most out of the pivotal role of the snake, a conflicted and trickily ambiguous part as he engineers the death of the prince. And the dance of the baobab trees was simply delightful. All of these minor roles were well-acted, in a non-threatening sort of way. This was, after all, an opera meant for the children, and particularly the younger ones.
There is an ironclad rule in our business never to criticize animals or children, so I will offer these comments in a positive light. The children's chorus, which doubles as a congregation of singing stars, was rather charmingly out of tune and under-rehearsed (at the children's matinee that I attended, a door accidentally opened with a loud crash at a particularly tender moment in the music).Also, City Opera's deuced amplification system was turned up so high that the naive qualities of their voices were lost in a haze of filtering on steroids.
Which brings us to the performance of Graham Phillips as the prince. It was impossible to judge his vocalism with his microphone turned up so high. His natural boy soprano was altered to the point that he sounded like a creature from another planet (a little "Little Prince" humor).This is sad because my instincts tell me that, had he been al lowed to interpret the role in his own voice, he would have been fine.
The ending of the piece is straight out of "Amahl and the Night Visitors"; this new effort has the potential to become just such an annual holiday fixture. Not that "The Little Prince" is all sweetness and light. Although it is quite appropriate for the smaller children - one of whom I interviewed during intermission to reorient my perspective just a tad - I believe that older, more sophisticated progeny might tire of its dangerous tightrope walk between sentiment and sentimentality. The second act is much less entertaining than the first and sinks down into the desert sand of treacly philosophizing just when you think you might escape any heavy-handed "point" to it all. Perhaps the best strategy for enjoying this opera to its fullest is to avoid its text.
Talking about his own Shakespearean adaptations, Orson Welles once remarked that if you were Verdi, you could write a great opera about Othello. If you were Bellini (he meant Rossini), you could write a good one. If you were Joe Shamokin, a bad one. But, in any case, the finished product was yours and needed to be divorced from the original (I'm paraphrasing). How did Ms. Portman do? I have no idea, since I never read the book.
"The Little Prince" will be performed again on November 15, 17, 18, 19 & 20 at the New York State Theater (Lincoln Center, 212-870-5570).