Superb cast makes WNO’s “Little Prince” a spirited and touching holiday treat

Fri Dec 15, 2017 at 1:16 pm
By Grace Jean

Holden Browne (left) and Michael Adams in Rachel Portman’s “The Little Prince” at Washington National Opera. Photo: Scott Suchman

It’s tradition for the Washington National Opera to present a family-friendly production at the Kennedy Center during the holidays. On Thursday evening, its charming revival of The Little Prince fit the bill with spirited doses of stage humor for the kids and nostalgia-tinged arias for the adults.

Based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince has an English libretto by Nicholas Wright and music by Rachel Portman. The opera recounts the story of a little boy living on a remote planet and his adventures and encounters with various characters as he travels to Earth. Written in 2002, the 100-minute opera boasts a modern score with hummable melodies and tunes to convey the book’s caricatures of humans, fauna and flora.

WNO’s artistic director Francesca Zambello reprised her role as the director for this production, which made savvy use of the Terrace Theater’s new and much improved space. This Little Prince has a larger-than-life quality about it, which extends from the whimsical sets and costumes to the lighting, effects and choreography. (That includes the children’s chorus dancing with giant paper cranes complete with flapping wings and then flanking the audience with glowing lanterns to sing during the first half’s finale.) Scenes unfold distinctly one by one, as a child might munch through a plate of multicolored macarons.

Connecting those scenes together, Michael Adams made a dashing Pilot with his smoky, butterscotch baritone. He sang heroically and tenderly and moved the plot along with the backstories of the Prince, played by Holden Browne, whose clarion voice fit the part well. The two forged a believable bond in the desert landscape that only grew stronger throughout the show and made the conclusion even more heartbreaking.

The large supporting cast excelled in the various character roles. Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis turned in strong performances as the pernicious Snake and the kazoo-playing Vain Man. Mezzo Allegra De Vita’s Fox was both playful and sage and a delight to watch. Soprano Madison Leonard played the Rose with a sparkly voice and an air that alternated between that of an ingénue and a diva.

In both his Lamplighter and Drunkard roles, tenor Alexander McKissick sang with a gravitas that  brought a surprising philosophical depth to these characters. His brief duet with the Prince, singing in harmony, unfortunately was covered by the orchestra, not for lack of the singers’ projection but because the musicians were at peak crescendo. 

Rounding out the impressive cast drawn from the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program, Timothy Bruno’s King was spot-on farcical, Christopher Kenney’s Businessman projected his baritone with self-importance, and soprano Raquel Gonzalez glittered in her role as Water. Complementing the group, the WNO Children’s Chorus sang sweetly and performed their roles confidently.

The opening-night jitters meant a tentativeness at the start of the show from some of the youthful players, that extended to intonation bobbles in the WNO orchestra. Balancing issues apart, in his WNO debut conductor James Lowe shifted the opera into high gear and sustained that momentum well to the inevitable ending, with the full company singing out in joyous,  hopeful celebration. 

The Little Prince will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. 


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