If you saw a drawing of a lumpy hat, would you assume it was just that? As an adult, you might. In the Kennedy Center’s Washington National Opera: Holiday Family Opera production of The Little Prince, you will learn that the hat is not really a hat at all, but a python that swallowed an elephant whole. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella by the same name is set perfectly on the stage; the beauty and simplicity of his language is everywhere in the opera, from the text to the gorgeous score. Librettist Nicholas Wright plucked profound lines directly from the book, and composer Rachel Portman captured the sense of discovery, fantasy, and love from the beloved children’s story.
The Little Prince tells the story of a pilot who crash lands in the Sahara Desert. He’s soon befriended by a little prince from a faraway planet, and the little prince shares the stories and lessons he’s learned from his travels. The opera was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera in 2003, with original set and costume design by the late Maria Björnson. She was the electrifying mastermind behind the crashing chandelier in the 1986 production of Phantom of the Opera, among other notable designs.
The Pilot, played by baritone Christian Bowers (12/19, 12/20 matinee and 12/21 matinee), and children’s chorus open the family-friendly performance. Bowers is a strong lead to ground the audience to reality, and he sings and acts his part with emotional integrity. Henry Wager, who is stupendous as The Little Prince, is charming and flawless. I was blown away by his boy soprano voice and the way he sings and acts The Little Prince with sheer conviction and sweetness. His enunciation and pitch are spot-on, too.
The set design and costumes are so whimsical and so much fun—Björnson created a realistic and simple, but effective, backdrop of the Sahara desert as the return to reality. I was impressed by how intricate, glittery, and playful the costumes are, especially in the intimate Terrace Theater. The costumes pull the audience into the story, and I think fans of the novella will agree that the characters are represented perfectly. Lighting designer Mark McCullough did a great job with creating natural lighting in the Sahara and jazzing it up for the character arias.
The music from the Oscar-winning Rachel Portman (Emma, Academy Award for Best Original Score; The Cider House Rules, Oscar and Grammy noms; Chocolat, Oscar and Emmy noms; etc.) is so beautiful; she painted the text with such varying instrumental textures and melodies. Each character’s temperament is epitomized in the score, especially The King’s aria, with bombastic horns and drums, The Vain Man’s zippy kazoo-bedecked aria, and The Drunkard’s woozy and percussive accompaniment. I loved how Portman uses the children’s chorus to transition between scenes. She also clearly understands the simple yet profound lessons the book teaches, and expresses that through The Pilot and The Little Prince’s music. Conductor Nicole Paiement transforms the score from notes on a page to a living character.
I also appreciated the forward momentum of the production, no doubt due to the outstanding cast, most of whom are WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. They all brought life to their characters, especially The Rose, coyly played by soprano Lisa Williamson; The Fox, animatedly sung by mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano; and The Snake/The Vain Man, villainously performed by John Kapusta. He brought slithery life to The Snake, and his Vain Man was hilarious—everyone in the audience chuckled when he sang his aria. The WNO Children’s Chorus was excellent, as well.
Francesca Zambello directed a knock-your-socks-off production of The Little Prince, and I can’t praise it enough. While not directly a Christmas story, the morals and lessons of friendship and love taught and learned echo the season’s essence.
Running time: 2 hours, including a 20 min intermission
The Little Prince plays through December 21, 2014, at The Kennedy Center Terrace Theater — 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4400 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.