Opera captures magic of 'Little Prince' story

Times Staff Writer

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" is a wondrous child's story beloved by adults. Rachel Portman's opera version, to be broadcast on KCET tonight at 9, keeps much of the book's tender magic intact, even though it eliminates a few episodes, simplifies the ideas and exteriorizes what is basically an interior narrative.

The broadcast version is an adaptation of the 2003 premiere production at Houston Grand Opera, directed with touching simplicity and sincerity by Francesca Zambello. Librettist Nicholas Wright turned the author's limpid text into singable, understandable quatrains. The late Maria Bjornson -- who famously designed the stage version of "The Phantom of the Opera" -- created the colorful, imaginative sets and costumes. David Charles Abell deftly conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Handsome New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes splendidly reprises the role he created of the Pilot, who crash-lands in the Sahara and encounters a mysterious, golden-haired boy from Asteroid B-612. Their encounter changes both and leads to much weeping for reader and viewer.

In the title role, Joseph McManners, who was 11 when this performance was taped, is simply astonishing. Filmgoers may be used to this level of honest, involving acting, but it's unfortunately uncommon in the opera world. There isn't a hint of phoniness in his portrayal, and he negotiates his difficult vocal part with fully professional breath control and ease.

The secondary characters marvelously depict various kinds of solipsistic egos -- Willard White is a standout as the King who rules nothing -- or, in the case of Lesley Garrett's gentle Fox, teach the lesson of the book, which is to establish enduring relationships.

In this sense, the work differs from Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen," a more acerbic opera with singing animals, which conceives of immortality only within the recurring cycle of nature

If there is a disappointing element, it is Portman's restrained tonal score, which is eminently serviceable and sometimes very imaginative and effective in context but generally unmemorable. Yet Portman, the first woman to win an Oscar for a film score (for the 1997 "Emma"), may have known what she was doing. Her music supports the text, allows the characters to emerge as individuals and provides sweeping moments in the finales of each of the two acts. Best is the way it combines with the magical Zambello-Bjornson production.

The sum is greater than the parts -- which is what opera originally was supposed to be.


'Great Performances: The Little Prince'

Where: KCET

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

Teddy Tahu Rhodes...The Pilot

Joseph McManners...The Little Prince

Mairead Carlin...The Rose

Willard White...The King

Lesley Garrett...The Fox

Executive producers Fiona Morris, David M. Jackson. Director Francesca Zambello, Composer Rachel Portman. Librettist Nicholas Wright. Based on the Antoine de Saint-Exupery book.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday April 07, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction "Emma" -- A review of "The Little Prince" in Wednesday's Calendar section said Rachel Portman won an Oscar for the score for the 1997 film "Emma." The movie was released in 1996.
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