Opera Parallèle’s The Little Prince Reaches Liftoff

Ilana Walder-Biesanz on December 4, 2017
Eve Gigliotti as the Pilot and Hannah Gonzales as the Little Prince | Credit: Steve DiBartolomeo

With the holidays comes a flurry of artistic offerings for children and families. The Met has dutifully loaded their December calendar with shortened, English-language versions of The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel. In San Francisco, Opera Parallèle is offering audiences Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince.

Both Portman’s opera and holiday presentations of the classics have an infantilizing feel: Do we really think young people can’t appreciate full-blown opera? (Maybe the question is moot, as few children were in the audience for The Little Prince on Friday, despite the family-focused marketing and coloring station in the lobby.) That’s not to say these bonbons aren’t sometimes charming. At its best, The Little Prince is infused with irresistible energy and fun. At other moments, a trite libretto and literal score induce cringes.

To start with the music: Portman’s fame and awards come from writing film scores (most notably, Emma and The Cider House Rules), and those roots show in The Little Prince. Word painting and heightened emotion abound. The Water’s music tinkles and bubbles. The Pilot sings about heights with high notes and depths with low ones. A sunset inspires a saccharine melody. Nicholas Wright’s libretto suffers from a similar addiction to the obvious and cute. Pat rhyming couplets quickly become tiring. (“They’ll laugh like bells / they’ll flow like wells” doesn’t seem too bad until you string together an hour and a half of such jingles.) Both music and words are at their best when commenting wryly on the adult world: the scenes with the King and Businessman are funny and unforced.

Sabrina Romero as the Rose and Hannah Gonzales as the Little Prince | Credit: Steve DiBartolomeo

While the sappy emotion of sunsets and stars rings false, the real feeling in the opera comes from the camaraderie that develops between the Pilot and the Prince. It’s especially moving in Opera Parallèle’s production because we get such talented singing actors in both roles. The Pilot was originally written for a baritone, but mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti was completely at home with the part. Her satiny voice and wide-ranging dynamic choices were complemented by her frankness of demeanor. She befriended the young Prince without a hint of condescension. Erin Enriquez’s Prince was a marvel. She sang with both naturalness and accuracy, with a sound that was neither chirpy nor pushed. She delivered her lines with heartbreaking earnestness. (The role of The Little Prince was double-cast, with Erin Enriquez alternating performances with Hannah Gonzales. Our photos from the dress rehearsal show Hannah Gonzales.)

The secondary parts were less consistently cast. Kindra Scharich’s smooth, soaring tone was perfect for the Fox, and Maggie Finnegan deployed her flowing voice nicely as the Water. Sabrina Romero-Wilson showed great attitude as the Rose, but her bubbly soprano had shrill edges. Zachary Lennox was bright-voiced and engaging as the businessman. Philip Skinner’s King drew from a deep, rich, well of sound and sang with playful self-awareness. The tenors fared less well: Samuel Faustine’s golden tones were choppily strung together in the Lamplighter’s aria, and J. Raymond Meyers’s whispery, strained voice as both the Snake and the Vain Man made me suspect he was sick (though no announcement was made).

Opera Parallele's 2017 production of The Little Prince | Credit: Steve DiBartolomeo

The San Francisco Girls Chorus sang the stars and birds in perfectly blended harmony, with blandly vacant expressions. Keisuke Nakagoshi on piano and Luçik Aprahämian on percussion did the work of a whole orchestra. Nicole Paiement conducted with her usual winning combination of vigor and precision.

Hannah Gonzales as the Little Prince and J. Raymond Meyers as the Vain Man | Credit: Steve DiBartolomeo

Director Brian Staufenbiel’s production makes full use of video projections, an Opera Parallèle signature They neither quite succeed nor fail — sometimes providing cute illustrations but equally often proving garish or distracting. The direction of what actually happens on stage is quite good (excepting the chorus blocking). From a set of wooden crates emerge an airplane, a well, and lairs for the Fox and Snake. Holes in the crates offer opportunities for clever entrances and exits (especially the Rose’s emergence and the Fox’s chase scene). Christine Cook’s costumes look good while capturing the corny spirit of the whole piece. The Elvis-impersonator Vain Man, hunters with orange suspenders and shades, and the shimmering gold Fox are highlights.

There’s a lot to love about this Little Prince: buoyant enthusiasm, excellent leads, and a short run time. (More modern operas should take note of that last point.) If it didn’t quite convince me, it’s because I disagree with a fundamental premise of the piece. Opera for children need not be childish.