At Tuesday’s showing of Jonathan Dove’s opera “The Enchanted Pig,” three princesses with hairdos resembling Mr. Softee servings took to the New Victory stage and started singing about husbands and livestock. The audience of roughly 500 pensive elementary schoolers took this in stride, but balked at the Pig himself. Dirty and growling, he barreled down the aisle to propose marriage to Flora, the youngest, entering with enough menace to make one little girl rise bodily from her seat and climb backward to the relative safety of the row behind.
The point here is not that kids are cute but that they take this kind of event extremely seriously. Dove’s score is beautiful — a lot of recitative, but plenty of hummable melodies, too. And it creates a contempo fairy-tale world that, for once, doesn’t look to “Shrek” for inspiration.
There are no meant-for-adults jokes in Alasdair Middleton’s libretto and very little acknowledgement that there’s any world at all outside the theater; just the princess (Karina Lucas) and the pig (Simon Wilding), who must immediately be married, according to an enchanted book.
Of course, the pig is a prince under a magic spell (he’s sort of a were-pig — boar by day, dreamboat by night). But when he tells his princess she only has to love him for long enough to break the spell, she’s not buying it. Our heroine foolishly buys a cure-all from a nice-seeming old lady (Beverly Klein) and immediately loses her husband, possibly forever.
In the story from which the show takes its name, the princess has to cut off a finger in order to reclaim her love. Dove trims the self-mutilation, but he keeps the suffering, borrowing from another fairy tale. Flora must wear out three pairs of iron shoes before she can see her husband again. Along the way she learns some surprising truths about love from a squabbling old couple (a very funny Jo Servi and Klein as the North Wind and his wife, respectively).
As much as the play is about having fun — a multi-disco-ball effect for the stars gets plenty of oohs and aahs — it’s also a journey to maturity for Flora, who starts out as a little girl and ends up a woman. The tale of the princess seeking to save the prince isn’t quite subversive (both tales sourced here are hundreds of years old, after all) but it’s heartening to see the gender-reversal twist.
The show’s tech elements are frequently superb, especially Dick Bird’s strange sheet-metal set, which sports surreal touches like a bed that slopes downward toward the floor and features a gate at the top. Two turntables are used to clever effect during transitions.
Director John Fulljames pitches the whole thing in that delicate region between condescending to the kids and totally leaving them behind. Crucially, he’s made sure his actors keep the lyrics clear. Only Wilding’s warbling is occasionally hard to understand, but the story is simple.
The show is full of cute touches and stays light and funny, but its narrative and physical achievements are surprisingly substantial.