It is good to think like a child again. To let life be what it is, explore it and react to it as if for the first time. Children believe in magic, until told otherwise. As we learn in Washington National Opera: Holiday Family Opera production of The Little Prince, a hat can be a misshapen snake with an elephant inside, as wonderfully adorned on the curtain scrim onstage.
A superlative reimagining of the beloved story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, I hesitate to call it a children’s tale, though it is full of fanciful themes, outrageous bug-eyed characters, and, in a nice casting decision by Washington National Opera, chock-filled with children. The 1943 novella, only one the most popular books ever written, tells the curious story of a pilot who finds himself stranded after crash landing in the Sahara Desert. Much to his surprise, he is soon joined by a very young boy who explains that he is a prince from a nearby asteroid. He then quizzically eyes up the situation and asks The Pilot to draw pictures of things he doesn’t understand. Soon the little prince is sharing stories from his travels to other planets and what he has experienced. What unfolds thereafter is a Christmas gift for the senses, as a wonderful visual panorama engulfs us. The opera originated in the Houston Grand Opera in 2003, the brainchild of Rachel Portman.
A superlative reimagining of the beloved story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry…
Though a charming, straightforward story, it is at the same time based on a book filled with deep symbolism of life’s meaning-a book read to children, but likely not read by ‘small’ children. Thus the challenge of WNO–to appeal to the audience of mostly young girls and some boys, and at the same time to their dutiful parents who led them here? With a nod to both, the visual wonder is for the youngsters, the sweet phrasing and apt musical accompaniment for the adults, (courtesy of Conductor Nicole Paiement and the WNO Orchestra.) The Orchestra followed so well the varied musical tempos of the fantastic characters encountered.
Baritone Christian Bowers, the character of The Pilot for my performance, provided fine pacing and added matinée idol good looks. While a strong melodic voice, some of his songs in lower register did not do justice to the phrasing. Yet he was up to the task and ensured that the delicate Prince was not overshadowed.
Henry Wager, as The Little Prince, is a delight to behold. I was impressed with his stage maturity and his young voice, though not yet trained or strong, was natural, befitting our little gentle traveler. He had an earnest likeability that was well received.
Giving the show an added burst of childlike wonder is the use of the children’s chorus who acted as the lights and in transition in several scenes. Great experience for them in a show that called for their talents. This is a show that features great cameos and the Princes storytelling of other planets inhabitants includes WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists the Rose, (Lisa Williamson) a festooned soprano and the object of the Prince’s care; The Vain Man (John Kapusta) who had the children bursting in laughter at his rollicking song. He doubled as The Snake, an eerie portrayal that also had kids and adults transfixed. The King (Wei Wu) with no other subjects was a standout vocally–suitably bombastic and had a superlative bass.
The Fox (mezzo soprano Aleksandra Romano) had a winning turn as she playfully romped with Wagner, slyly helping him figure out his next steps.
Design is often mentioned last, as I am admittedly doing here. Kept in ¾ lighting, the show had a dreamy feel, making it much easier to accept this fantasy world. A simple effective set matched the innocence of the Prince. Back scrims provided an effective projection of the night sky. Hats off to WSO Designer Mark McCullough for lighting design, especially within a travelling show.
WNO has given us a memorable production of The Little Prince, and a great Christmas gift to the appreciative youngsters who can now explore the deeper themes in later years.
Running time: 2 hours, with a 20 minute intermission
The Little Prince concluded it’s run on December 21, 2014, at The Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to upcoming events call the box office at (202) 467-4400 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online here.