07 May 2008

Go, lovely rose

Last Friday at Zellerbach I heard the West Coast premiere of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, while surrounded by a noisy, inattentive audience – oh, not the many, many children, who were beautifully behaved, and whose joyful excitement after the show was a treat to see – just the usual moronic, rude adults who think everyone wants to hear them talking during music. There seemed many more of them than usual. The innocent open pleasure of the children versus the self-absorbed self-importance of adults is actually quite the theme in this work, and for a moment I had to consider, based on the evidence around me during the performance, whether it really is true to life. That moment didn’t last long. Most adults I know are almost too conscious of being trapped in absurd situations and pointless routines, and aren’t particularly pompous about it or proud of it. There just isn’t any way out, if you want to pay the bills and otherwise get through the day. It’s odd but maybe appropriate that a celebration of the impulses of childhood over adulthood should come at a university. As I walked through the glades on the Berkeley campus towards Sproul Plaza, I noticed each lightpole was hung with huge banners showing a photograph of a current Cal student, his or her future graduation date, and a sentence saying what the whole crazy Berkeley experience has meant to him or her. Apparently my alma mater has taught most of them that they, too, can reduce their lives to inspirational clichés. Keep on living out loud, whatever that means! Just please don’t do it while I’m trying to listen to music.

I thought I had never read The Little Prince. Now, several days after seeing it, I’m thinking maybe I did read it, though obviously it didn’t make much of an impression on me, and believe me, I was a child prone to weeping. I love children’s books and still read them (my rule of thumb for giving books to actual children: it has to be something I would consider reading myself). The Oz books were and are particular favorites. Let me commend the Beckett-like character of the Hungry Tiger (who can only be sated by eating fat babies, but who is too tender-hearted to allow himself to do so). Check out the heroic chicken Billina in Ozma of Oz. And if you want to cry at the end of a children’s book, read The Lost Princess of Oz. The harsh, hilarious dreamworld logic of those books (another obvious example is the Alice books – Amazon is finally sending me my DVD of Unsuk Chin’s new Alice opera, by the way) captures something really true to the helpless absurdity of childhood, and it echoes into the helpless absurdity of adulthood.

But I don’t think The Little Prince is a children’s book at all. It’s an adolescent’s book, and I can see that if you read it at a certain stage in your life, it will make a profound impression on you, and seem like truth, and you will remember it with deep affection, and perhaps even retain the affection if you re-read it as an adult. It speaks to that very early stage of late childhood/early adulthood when you have the troubling sense that the world is terribly wrong, but that if only people would think – or, more to the point, feel – differently, then life and the world would be different, as if the world’s troubles are a matter of perception and organization, rather than inherent faults or flaws. I don’t really respond to these books, I guess. (I was also the only one in eighth grade who hated SE Hinton's The Outsiders. Everyone else was sobbing. I thought it was sentimental and manipulative. But I kept my mouth shut and went back to reading Dostoevsky’s Idiot on my own. Supply your own joke about how popular I was.)

So I’m only guessing when I say that the opera is faithful to the book in story and spirit. That seemed to be the feeling around me (as I sometimes do, I've avoided reading reviews and reactions until I could post mine). I wonder if certain details are made clearer in the book: for instance, how the little Prince gets from planet to planet in the first half, and why he’s stuck in the desert on Earth for the whole second half. Reading the summary in the program book afterward, I gathered that the flock of cranes was moving him from planet to planet, but I still don’t know why they couldn’t move him around on Earth. I wondered why the cranes were on stage, but frankly the story is a bit disjointed anyway, and the crane chorus, like all the choruses, was lovely so I just enjoyed listening. In fact all the music is really genuinely lovely, in a melted ice cream kind of way, and maybe too relentlessly so. During the crane chorus a woman soloist does a soaring vocalise above the rest of the singers, and it’s really lovely. Then there’s another chorus later on where I think flowers are singing, and a woman representing water also does a soaring vocalise above the rest of the singers, and I might have the details wrong because it started to blur a bit, but the second time around, it was still lovely, but it didn’t seem like a deliberate echo of or reference to the earlier moment, it just seemed like a lovely effect in a perhaps fairly limited range of lovely effects. Lovely – I keep using that word, and after a while, it starts losing its force, doesn’t it?

I think the music would have been more powerful if the opera were shortened – maybe 90 minutes without intermission, as opposed to a bit over two hours with an intermission. As I said, it’s a bit disjointed. I wasn’t sure we needed all the little planets in the first half, however amusing they might be on their own. I was frankly puzzled by the planet of the Vain Man. He’s sung by the tenor Thomas Glenn, who has a really appealing reedy quality to his voice. He’s very handsome, but his face was made up so that he bore a startling resemblance to Joel Grey as the MC in Cabaret and he’s dressed in an odd, bright yellow suit and hat – sort of like Jim Carrey in The Mask except completely round in the middle. Is the point supposed to be that he’s not handsome at all in any conventional sense, just hungry for attention? Glenn returns later as the Snake and does a really terrific job in modulating his voice and performance, giving a slight hiss on his sibilants and moving with the slightly jerky rhythm and menacing hooded air of a snake.

The performances are all very fine. Kenneth Kellogg has wonderful stature and a commanding voice as the King, Andrew Bidlack was poignant in different ways as the Drunkard and the Lamplighter, Marie Lenormand is a tender fox, whose hunters are also played by some of the guys I’ve just mentioned. I think the hunters and the fox are there to teach us a valuable lesson about loving, but to be honest my attention wandered a bit at that point because with a sudden rueful pang in my heart I started wishing I were at The Cunning Little Vixen instead.

Eugene Brancoveanu as the Pilot has a voice that is bright and clear without being cartoony, which also describes the sets and costumes. I assume the costumes are based on Saint-Exupery’s own illustrations to his book, so he must be responsible for the puzzling look of the Vain Man. But generally the costumes look great, except for the Rose and the other flowers, which I thought looked sort of swollen and fake. Ji Young Yang had a nice metallic quality to her voice – I’d call it sharpness but that is misleading in a musical context – that helped embody the thorny side of the Rose.

I heard Tovi Wayne as the eponymous Prince. I’m not that crazy about the white sound of boy sopranos or children’s voices generally, and the character strikes me as kind of annoying – if I were a pilot who had just crashed in the African desert, and I couldn’t fix my plane and was running out of water, I don’t think I would succumb to the tender wisdom of some weird little kid who appears out of nowhere and denounces me as a silly grown-up for trying to fix my plane and get the hell out of Dodge instead of drawing him suitable sheep; I mean, what the hell? it’s very whimsical and all, but I’d probably be thinking about the water situation – but Wayne did a nice job, and was very appealing. He was also amplified. I understand the necessity for helping a child singer in a barn like Zellerbach, singing with and against the trained operatic voices of adult men and women, and it was very well done, but it was done, and that should have been noted, I think, if only by a discreet note in the program. I realize amplification is a loaded issue in opera houses. Personally, I join those opposing it. But I can see why it might be necessary in this case, and if the house hides that, it looks as if they feel they shouldn't be doing it.

During the curtain calls Brancoveanu in a nice dad kind of way picked his Little Prince up and put him on his shoulders to receive the crowd’s applause, and when he put him down Wayne, who was probably less than half the size of the baritone, made as if to pick up Brancoveanu in his turn. Very sweet moment. Maybe more so because it felt like a truer and freer and more affectionate interaction between adult and child than the performance did – no lessons about loving, just a loving act unself-consciously performed. I wish my feelings weren’t so mixed. Lovely, and maybe too much so. Sweet, but maybe too long for the sweetness not to cloy. Childlike, but maybe tipping over into the childish too often. Anyone who loves this book would likely love the opera as well. The children in the audience really seemed thrilled, and I feel like a spoilsport even saying anything critical, but I've been to children's operas that could also be felt deeply and unreservedly by adults (for example, the ENO's staging of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel presented by SF Opera a few years ago, with its fish-headed waiters and concentration on hunger.)

The Little Prince ends with a chorus about letting your heart be your guide, though I was a little mystified by the references to the Little Prince’s laughter (if he laughed during the opera, or if his laughter was represented musically, I missed it). The chorus itself, and I’ve already mentioned how lovely the choruses in particular are, struck me as a late-blooming example of oddly Victorian uplift, though the sentiment is one that the Victorians themselves satirized. I mean, I can’t be the only one whose heart has ever misled him – right? I saw people sobbing at the end, and I was moved to well up a bit myself, while still retaining my skepticism about what the chorus was saying. Such is the strange power of music, separated from the words and sheerly as sound, to slip beneath our conscious thoughts and even our deepest constructions of the meaning of our lives and to stab us in spots where we didn’t even know we were vulnerable. But I don’t know if people were crying because of what they were feeling, or because of what they felt they could not feel.


sfmike said...

Sorry to keep hijacking your comments section, but your pornographic insistence on the word "lovely" brought to mind one of my all-time favorite memories.

My friend Lee Brenneman, who is now in heaven, had just moved into his first condo in West Hollywood back in the early 1980s. He had also, the night before, watched a videotape of the very sick late Hitchcock classic, "Frenzy," set in London in the then-current early 1970s. The villain was a rapist/murderer who worked in Covent Garden when it was in its last legs as a farmer's market. In any case, there is a grotesquely graphic scene of the villain raping and murdering a secretary in her office, and with each thrust during the rape, he'd whisper huskily in a Cockney voice, "Loooovely," until it was a veritable orgasmic refrain of "loveeeliees."

My friend Lee the next day found himself wandering around in his new condo, wandering down the hall, muttering to himself, "Loooooveeeeely..."

Both Eugene and Thomas Glenn are the bombs, by the way. I hope they have great careers.

Joshua Kosman said...

Patrick, thanks for the lovely review, which inspires the usual mix of awe and envy.

Thanks especially for the astute analysis of the target audience of the book — I think you've hit it exactly right. It's like a training-wheels version of the real "nobody-understands-me" lit like The Catcher in the Rye. On which subject, semi-parenthetically, let me recommend the film The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston alongside Jake Gyllenhal (sp?) as a "sensitive" young writer writing long Salingeresque stories about how nobody gets him. It's wonderfully pitiless.

pjwv said...

Mike, I'm delighted to have my comments section serve as a cabinet of curiosities for memories and other bizarre, fragmentary, and unreal realities.

Uh, so are you recommending that Hitchcock film? There's lots of Hitchcock I haven't seen because basically I dislike suspense films (actually, I dislike suspense), but I'm catching up. I love Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train.

I'm totally with you on Glenn and Brancoveanu -- I've heard Eugene B more often, but I've really liked both of them, and indeed, good luck and good fortune to them.

Joshua, I was just heading over your way to comment on your Trollope posting. . . . I will now also read your Little Prince review, which I set aside until I had posted. I did read Catcher in the Rye, but so long ago I don't really remember it. I've occasionally thought about re-reading it, but have never really felt urgent about it (for one thing, I could be reading or re-reading long Victorian novels instead).
Thanks for the film recommendation. I like both those actors so I did have that film in the Netflix queue, but as V once said with I thought undue bitterness, "I used to think that meant something." I'll bump it up in the rotation. It sounds really promising.

vicmarcam said...

Oh no, that was very due bitterness.

I tried to read The Little Prince when Marin and Cameron were young because I knew it was a classic. By the time I got to chapter two and read, for about the fifth time, "But the grown-ups did not understand," I was ready to send it to another planet. Thankfully, we had you to read the Oz books to us so that we could enjoy good classics.

pjwv said...

V, I will refrain from publicly shaming you by listing some of those recommendations I was supposed to move up the queue. I give you The Lady Eve, and you give me. . . .

It occurs to me that neither you nor I would respond to a heavily anti-grown-up book, because the grown-ups were the only ones who understood us to any extent. Take away adulthood, and you take away hope from a certain type of child. If you're living in what seems like the island in Lord of the Flies, it's a little difficult to get sentimental over "the grown ups did not understand". . . .

Lisa Hirsch said...

I missed The Little Prince owing to my failure to buy tickets in advance. Who knew there'd be so few performances?? Well, I could have looked.

In any event, after reading this I'm only half sorry that I missed it.

pjwv said...

Lisa, I'm a little late in responding; sorry, I've been having computer problems. . .
You may know this already, but there's a DVD available of the opera as shown on PBS. If you have any curiosity that might be a less expensive and more generally convenient way to check it out.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Curious enough to rent it, certainly! Thanks.