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Portman: The Little Prince / McManners, Carlin, White, et al

Portman,Rachel
Release Date: 03/29/2005 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 58846  
Composer:  Rachel Portman
Performer:  Richard SuartLesley GarrettTom RandleTimothy Robinson,   ... 
Conductor:  David Charles Abell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Concert Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved book has been with us for more than 60 years, a staple of French language classes in the English-speaking world, and of the night stands of young people of the more philosophical sort. It’s an elusive story, easier to feel than to explain, and it takes a light touch to translate it, to say nothing of adapting it for another medium. (Others have tried.) This new “children’s opera” has been performed in Houston and in New York City, and televised by the BBC. It is the latter studio production that has been simultaneously released by Sony Classical on DVD and CD. Oxford-educated Rachel Portman has been writing film scores since the early 1980s; these include The Cider House Rules, Sense and Read more Sensibility, The Human Stain, and the Emmy-winning Emma. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she prefers acoustic instruments to electronics, and her scores are warm, emotional, and human. She was a good choice for The Little Prince. The libretto was prepared by Nicholas Wright, who more or less managed to retain the original’s flavor without too much saccharine. (Lines such as “Anything essential is invisible to the eye” and “Eyes are blind, look only with your heart” are bound to get the cynics groaning, however.) Thousands of children were auditioned for the title role and for the ensemble. (This process is featured in a 13-minute “Blue Peter” special, which is a bonus on the DVD.) Maria Bjørnson’s sets and costumes are faithful to Saint-Exupéry’s vision.

Although The Little Prince is not an instant classic, it’s heartening proof that integrity and sensitivity still exist in the music business. Portman’s music is touching, and it is of the proper scale for the story. One must remark, however, that her score is not ideally varied over the course of the opera, and that her experience as a film composer is more noticeable than her skill as a composer for the voice. Kudos to her anyway for not talking down to her potential audience, and for not cheapening the material with “pop” inflections. Indeed, what Poulenc or Britten might have done with this story—and it would have been a natural for them—is not so different from what Portman has done, within her own style. Again, her score perfectly captures the book’s childlike wonder and—for the lack of a better phrase—its tough sweetness.

The casting seems perfect. In the title role, serious little Joseph McManners looks and sings like an angel, but there’s not a trace of specious cuteness or sentimentality in his portrayal. But really, it would be invidious to single him out, given the warm and dedicated performances by Teddy Tahu Rhodes, White, Garrett, and others. (Aled Jones, himself an accomplished boy soprano in days gone by, sings the brief role of the Drunkard.) All soloists have perfect diction, rendering the libretto unnecessary. (The chorus doesn’t enunciate quite that well, unfortunately.) Francesca Zambello’s direction stays out of the way of the story, enhancing its simplicity and creating a space in which one’s imagination can fly.

The CDs are a little longer than the DVD. Apparently there was a 90-minute limit on what could be broadcast by the BBC, so cuts amounting to a few minutes in total—nothing disfiguring—were made. I guess this means that if you fall in love with The Little Prince, you’ll want both—the DVD so you can see it all, and the CDs so you can hear it all.

Call me a pessimist, but I think The Little Prince—the book and the opera—probably is too thoughtful and too uneventful for today’s younger children, reared as they are on video games and other instant gratifications. If you know an emotionally or musically talented high schooler, however, he or she might fall in love with it. Failing that, I am sure there’s many an adult who would enjoy The Little Prince, with or without children of his or her own.

Raymond Tuttle, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

1.
The Little Prince by Rachel Portman
Performer:  Richard Suart (Baritone), Lesley Garrett (Soprano), Tom Randle (),
Timothy Robinson (Tenor), Joseph McManners (), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (),
Mairead Carlin (), Willard White (Bass), Aled Jones (),
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (Soprano), Richard Coxon (Tenor)
Conductor:  David Charles Abell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Concert Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 

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