The Prince and the Rose

Classic Arts Features   The Prince and the Rose
Curtis Cate reveals the love affair behind The Little Prince, Rachel Portman's 2003 opera, which returns to Houston Grand Opera on December 5.

Rachel Portman's opera The Little Prince was created with great respect for its source material, Le Petit Prince, which is the best-known work by French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (known to his intimates as Saint-Ex or Tonio). According to biographer Curtis Cate, the Little Prince clearly represents Saint-Exupéry as the child he once was as well as the child he would have liked to have had. The Rose, whose complicated relationship with the Prince is the heart of the story, can just as clearly be seen to represent Saint-Exupéry's wife, Consuelo Suncìn Sandoval de Gómez, whom he met when he was serving as director of air mail services in Argentina. The following, excerpted with Cate's permission from his definitive biography Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: His Life and Times, describes the beginnings of their volatile love story.

The ways of Providence are mysterious and so are those of the soothsayer. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's mother's brother Jacques had married a Russian, and one day in their Paris apartment a friend of hers, who was also a Russian and a palm reader to boot, had predicted that Antoine would marry a young widow whom he would meet within the next eight days. The eight days had passed, the young widow had failed to materialize, and a bemused Antoine had since had seven or eight years in which to cultivate his celibacy.

Probably the incident was not even a memory when Benjamin Crémieux turned up in Buenos Aires in the late summer of 1930. Crémieux had made a name for himself in the French literary world by translating Pirandello, and it was as a kind of literary ambassador that he was sent to South America in 1930 on a lecture tour sponsored by the Alliance Française.

In Buenos Aires he had looked up Saint-Exupéry, whom he had gotten to know in Paris, and at a literary reception, which the Alliance gave in his honor, he introduced his friend Tonio to Señora Gomez Carrillo, an attractive, dark-haired young lady whom he had met on the ship coming over. Her husband, Enrique Gomez Carrillo, had died a few years before, leaving her an apartment in Paris, a villa in Nice, and also‹which explains her coming to South America‹considerable holdings in Argentina.

It was thus with a surprise verging on delight that Saint-Exupéry made the acquaintance of Gomez Carrillo, who chattered away at him in a brittle but extraordinarily picturesque French, which amused him no end. She was dark and petite‹not his type at all‹but there was a wild beauty in her dark eyes and a wild wind in her speech that held him spellbound: So he was an aviateur? How marvelous! How wonderful it must be to look down on the earth from up there, how small, how strange everything must look! But alas, she had never been up in a plane.

"Then I shall take you up," cried Saint-Exupéry. "It will be your baptism of the air, and I shall be your parent, your godfather, and your priest."

Saint-Ex was as good as his word. They drove out to Pacheco, where he took her up in a Laté 25, making sure she was carefully strapped into the seat next to his. A few thousand feet up, he said to her with a grin, "Now I shall show you what this plane can do." And with that he put the plane through a series of sharp banks and glides, which utterly unnerved her. "Stop! Stop!" she cried. But the game continued, and with each swoop she grew more frightened.

"All right," said Saint-Exupéry. "I'll stop‹if you promise to be mine."

He reduced the speed of the motor and pushed forward on the stick. The nose of the plane went down and to Consuelo's horror the earth started coming up at them, growing larger with each terrifying second. "Stop!" she wailed.

"Say 'yes,'" shouted Saint-Ex, who was enjoying himself hugely.

"Oui, oui, oui!" she cried, covering her eyes.

He pulled back on the stick and the sky, which had disappeared over their heads, dropped gently back into place. He gave her a broad dimpled grin, but it was not until they had landed that she was prepared to smile again.

Probably neither had much inkling of what lay in store at first, and certainly not Saint-Ex, who had only meant this gallant overture as a joke. But three days later one of those revolutions that she had talked about in her native San Salvador overtook the sister republic of Argentina. The Radical party to which her late husband had belonged was rudely unhorsed, and from one day to the next Gomez Carrillo's properties were confiscated by the new masters of the country. His widow suddenly found herself practically without a penny‹in an alien country, far from home. Saint-Exupéry took pity on her plight and took her under his wing.

Several months later Consuelo sailed back to Europe, while Tonio stayed on in Buenos Aires. One day Xenia Kouprine (daughter of the Russian novelist Alexander Kouprine) got a telephone call in Paris from Consuelo, anxiously beseeching the young film actress to come and see her quickly...because something dreadful had happened! On reaching her apartment, Xenia found her friend dressed in black. The light had gone out of her eyes and her face was red from weeping. She was desperate, Consuelo said to her. In South America she had met the most wonderful man who had saved her from fear and despair. But not for long...for a revolution had broken out and he had been shot before her eyes!

Kouprine discovered only later that some grave misunderstanding had cropped up between Consuelo and Antoine, reducing her to this pass. The actress spent three agitated days trying to keep Consuelo from opening her veins or swallowing poison.

The third day, however, a telegram arrived and suddenly a radiant Consuelo was dancing about like a bird.

"He's coming!" cried Consuelo, waving the telegram.

"Who's coming?"

"He, him, the man I love!"

"But you told me they shot him in front of your eyes!"

"Oh, you know," answered Consuelo lightly, "I didn't want to love him, and I thought he had left me and been unfaithful to me. And so I imagined him dead."

Both she and Tonio were very much alive when they met in Madrid and took the train back to Paris. Here she was introduced to his friends, some of whom, familiar with Tonio's tastes, had trouble believing he could seriously be contemplating marriage to someone so curiously petite and dark. And then, she was not French but Latin American!

The wedding was held April 12 in the chapel at Agay, the Côte d'Azur chateau of Saint-Exupéry's brother-in-law. The weather was flawless and the sun sparkled gaily on the water. The bridegroom looked very happy in his dark, double-breasted suit. Instead of a white veil Consuelo wore a mantilla, and the roses in her dark hair made her look more than usually dazzling.

Just why this vivacious "oiseau des îles"‹this island bird from the tropics‹had chosen to settle on Tonio no one quite knew. Saint-Exupéry himself did not seem to know quite what to make of her. Was she fire or was she water? The sun or the moon? She seemed to embrace all the elements and all the moods. Changing? Like the tide. Capricious? Like any woman. Unpredictable? That was part of her charm. Fascinating? Beyond a doubt. Next to his huge bulk she looked so small, so fragile; and one day in a playful mood he called her his "papavéracée"‹the family of plants that poppies belong to.

Once, after a mysterious absence of three days, Tonio received an unsigned telegram from some remote village in the Alps which read: "Don't you hear the jingle bell of your little lost lamb?" They had been expected to lunch at an airplane manufacturer's but in the end Antoine had turned up alone. Consuelo? He had had no idea what had become of her. And he added with a disarming smile, "J'ai perdu ma sorcière." My sorceress! And, as his friend Henri Jeanson was later to remark, no one knew which of the two it was who had bewitched the other.

Curtis Cate has written biographies on Saint-Exupéry, Nietzsche, Malraux, and others.

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