Utah Opera’s “The Little Prince” is captivating, well-cast magic for all ages

Sun Jan 20, 2019 at 1:00 pm
By Edward Reichel

The Prince (Nitai Fluchel) and the Pilot (Jared Bybee) in “The Little Prince.” (Dana Sohm/Utah Opera)

The Little Prince made its Utah Opera debut to boisterous acclaim Saturday at the Capitol Theatre for what proved to be a superb adaptation of a literary classic. Composer Rachel Portman and librettist Nicholas Wright have taken the much-loved children’s novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and transformed it into an opera with universal appeal.

At first glance, the story of a young prince visiting Earth from a distant planet seems simple and fanciful — a child’s tale. But the work has much deeper meaning as it explores how differently children and adults perceive the world. Saint-Exupéry wanted adults to take life less seriously and to honor the power of their own childhood imaginations by not stifling their children’s creativity and thirst for learning.

And right from the start Saturday, this opera enveloped the audience and brought them into its unique world, while also encouraging patrons to wonder: Did this story really take place, or was it all in the author’s head? The question remains cleverly and enchantingly open in this updated production of the 2003 original that premiered in Houston.

The role of the prince is quite a demanding one. The performer is rarely off stage, and must have creditable acting and singing abilities. Fortunately, the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City, under the direction of Melanie Malinka, is an outstanding training ground for young voices, including 11-year-old Nitai Fluchel.

The Madeleine fifth grader gave a dynamic performance Saturday that captured the innocence of childhood while exhibiting a maturity and depth of character far beyond his years. One would never guess that this is Nitai’s first operatic role. He has remarkably natural stage presence and he interacts with the adult characters convincingly.

Many of Nitai’s schoolmates make up the sizable children’s choir, and they, too, were impressive, maturely at ease in their assignments, and up to the opera’s rigorous demands on their voices and stage time.

Of course the music itself was also instrumental in elevating these young singers. Academy Award-winner Portman has written a score that is unabashedly tonal, and at times reminiscent of her film work. Her harmonic palette is rich and her orchestration colorful, and she knows intuitively how to set a mood or define a character.

Among the adults, baritone Jared Bybee in his Utah Opera debut gave a powerful and finely nuanced performance as the Pilot, who is both part of the story and its narrator. Bybee has a mellow, sonorous voice that carries well, and his vocal lyricism blended wonderfully with Nitai’s youthful timbre, never overpowering him. In their portrayals was a deep kinship — an understanding — that makes one consider that the prince might be the pilot as a child.

In other grownup roles, soprano Grace Kahl was expressive as The Rose; soprano Melissa Heath gave a brief virtuoso turn as The Water; and tenor Addison Marlor was equally on point in the dual roles of the Lamplighter and the Drunkard.

Mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar was stunning as the Fox, a traveling companion imparting life lessons to the prince. And tenor Joshua Lindsay showed his own role-changing versatility as both the silly Vain Man and the slithery and conniving Snake.

In a pair of standout comedic parts, baritone Jesús Vicente Murillo as the Businessman and bass Tyrell Wilde as the King were a delight, singing and hamming their way through their respective scenes with disarming wit and over-the-top bravado.

The sets and costumes, designed for and created for Utah Opera by Jacob A. Climer, were fabulously multi-faceted. Climer captured the story’s fantastical elements with vibrant wardrobe and an ingenious set strewn with thousands of handwritten pages — a striking illustration of the real-or-not dichotomy that animates this production. We see Saint-Exupéry’s wildly creative imagination and his painstaking, writerly toil.

Kate Casalino’s make-up artistry rendered the fantasy characters both vivid and real, while Tara Faircloth’s direction let the story unfold at a good pace and allowed the characters to be themselves. Conductor James Lowe, leading members of the Utah Symphony in the pit, brought the music to dynamic life.

The Little Prince runs through January 27 at the Capitol Theatre. utahopera.org; 801-355-2787.

One Response to “Utah Opera’s “The Little Prince” is captivating, well-cast magic for all ages”

  1. Posted Jan 22, 2019 at 2:49 pm by Lauren Reiser

    For clarification, the costumes were designed by Jacob Climer, but not created by him. That was done by the amazingly talented Utah Opera costume department.

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