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NEMPAC Takes Princely Flight

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The Pilot (Christina English) comforts the Little Prince. (Sabrina Ornae photo)

Beloved novelist, aviator, and hero Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint-Exupéry, was lucky to survive his 1935 crash in the Libyan dessert. The world was lucky too, being the richer for the literary and patriotic successes in the great Frenchman’s remaining nine years, before he disappeared on a reconnaissance flight for La Résistance. He told us in Wind, Sand and Stars that upon surveying his predicament, his “sole supplies consisted of some grapes, two oranges, a madeleine, a pint of coffee in a battered thermos, a half pint of white wine, and a hundred grammes of ninety percent alcohol, the same of pure ether, and a small bottle of iodine.”

His imagination survived intact as well, because that wily naïf, his immortal Little Prince, first came to Earth and encountered him in those hot sands.

Published in New York in 1943, the eponymous petit roman with Exupérys marvelous tinted line drawings has inspired hundreds of adaptations and continues to sell two million copies year after year. Rachel Portman’s light opera from 2003 to a rhymed-couplet-libretto by Nicholas Wright features parts for 20 children, as well as a boy soprano and a double quartet of adults, taking cameo roles when not massed. What could constitute a more perfect community service vehicle for the North End Music & Performing Arts Center (NEMPAC) to undertake with VOICES Boston? NEMPAC’s eighth annual “Opera Project” landed at Faneuil Hall last night (second performance Saturday) with some first-rate singing and orchestra playing.

Portman’s opera divides critics with notices ranging from enchanted to vicious. Whether it can maintain the interest of children, much less usefully introduce them to opera, is disputed. To these ears, Portman effectively paints words and moods with varied tones, using the resources of the eight strings, winds, brass, harp, large percussion section (including four mallet instruments), and keyboard to charming affect. Whether her pleasant modalities motor to lofty grand opera or just glide like Broadway vernacular can be debated. Over 90 sometimes-tedious minutes of wistful innocence, with little character development or, indeed, plot, the show cruised along on autopilot with no turbulence to require seatbelts. We provide a synopsis HERE.

In the versions done by many big companies, Saint-Exupéry images form the basis of advanced stage magic which can enlarge upon  the music. With most of NEMPAC’s limited budget dedicated to booking the best opera orchestra I have heard in a non-conservatory community company, little lucre remained, it seemed, for absorbing stagecraft. Some modestly responsive lighting, bright costumes, and a Snoopy-style aeroplane, did little to dissolve Faneuil Hall’s walls and transport us to the Prince’s magical spheres. Uninventive blocking of the many players did little to relieve the tedium. A big screen with projections, and a darker house, would have engaged us without having broken the bank.

Remarkably, Linus Schaeffer-Golthorpe got through 90 minutes on stage in the title role without mishap. A tremendous accomplishment for an 11-year-old. He engaged with the fox, although in his encounters with the well, the lamplighter, the king, the geographer et alia, he just parked and sang. But he did ring out the notes and never gave cause for anxiety. Did he register any of his character’s emotional complexities? Probably not. Will Clare Cho, who essays the role on Saturday? Maybe readers can report.

The VOICES Choir of 11 girls, including three taking attractive solo turns, made fine impressions in their many appearances, testifying to the success of the organization’s mission. Twelve adult singers all revealed charming stage personas and polished tones. Few projected the words clearly in the resonant space, and the tiny, dim projected titles flashed indecipherably from where we sat, center balcony.

Mezzo-soprano Christina English essayed the Pilot, the single major role, generally taken by a baritone. While she took some diva flights, she often had to throttle back so as not to stall the cantillations of the Little Prince. When she had the chance to soar, her lines arched gracefully skyward.

Conductor Tiffany Chang encouraged her 21 players to color with distinction and to underscore Portman’s characterizations seamlessly. If we heard whiffs of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen, we also got some movie music and Andrew Lloyd Weber Broadway maladies. Performing on the floor (no pit at Faneuil Hall), the orchestra could easily cover the singers, so Chang had to limit the dynamic range to mp-mf. And although each of the two acts ended in a big crescendo with the entire company on stage, nothing else deviated much from the precious wistfulness.

“I can think of no better time than now for us all to hit the reset button together and to let the Little Prince teach us how to love, how to laugh at ourselves, and, perhaps the greatest challenge of all, how to learn to let our walls down to someone and risk the pain of saying goodbye to them after they touched our hearts,” artistic and stage director Alexandra Dietrich noted. And she underlined Exupéry’s musings: “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.  . . . It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Well okay, if you say so… but let it be noted that upon disembarking, the passengers cheered the great flight.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

Linus Schaeffer-Golthorpe (Little Prince) tames Roselin Osser as The Fox. (Sabrina Ornae photo)

The Prince … Linus Schaeffer-Golthorpe
Pilot … Christina English
The Snake / The Vain Man … Fran Daniel Laucerica
The Rose … DeFranco
The King … Marcus Schenck
The Geographer … Joshua Dixon
The Lamplighter/The Drunkard … Ehimemen Omigie
The Businessman … Gray Leiper
The Fox … Roselin Osser
The Water … Jennifer Caraluzzi
Common Rose 1 / Prince cover … Patricia Kopko
Common Rose 2 / Rose and Water cover … Luisamaria Hernandez
Common Rose 3 / Fox and Pilot cover … Jessica Trainor Tasucu

Clare Cho, alternate Little Prince

The NEMPAC Opera Project enriches the North End, Charlestown, and surrounding neighborhoods in Boston through accessible, quality performing arts programming, serving over 550 professional local artists, singers, and musicians through this project, and have reached over 15,000 community members and visitors through both the fully staged annual productions and free community performances in the Christopher Columbus Park.

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  1. Good performance. As a young person and then an adult I had managed to avoid reading this book, along with Catcher in the Rye, another Book We’re Supposed to Read When Growing Up. Now this wonderful opera makes me want to read the book. I did finally read Catcher at age 34 or so while sick–and at page 143 rebelled after one too many “I really mean it!” from Holden “Whiney” Caufield. Anyways thanks for this review which brought back memories–this is the way to perform this work. The performance space has challenges but the uncomfortable seats keep you awake mostly, though there was one point I seemed to have missed something and perhaps nodded off due to lack of sleep. But–an exciting summer of opera coming up in Boston; check the Boston Opera Calendar.

    Comment by NathanRedshield — July 7, 2019 at 10:41 am

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