Tuesday 4 March 2008

Review of The Adventures of Pinocchio

Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s new opera, The Adventure of Pinocchio, is in many ways a follow up to their previous Christmas piece The Enchanted Pig. Like its predecessor, Pinocchio is aimed at a family audience but in such a way as to provide a piece to which both adults and children can respond. The Enchanted Pig was written for a mixed cast of actors and opera singers, but the new piece is a fully fledged opera written for Opera North. The premiered it in Leeds in December last year and are currently touring it, fetching up in London last week (we saw the opera on Friday 29th Feb. at Sadlers Wells).

Dove and Middleton have gone back to Collodi’s original for the plot rather than the Disney re-working. This means that the piece has a great deal of plot to get through with a large number of characters. The only large role is Pinocchio himself (Victoria Simmonds) who is on stage virtually all the time. All the other characters are on stage a relatively short time. Pinnocchio’s father Geppetto (Jonathan Summers) and the Blue Fairy (Mary Plazas) have the largest supporting roles as their characters crop up in a number of scenes. The rest of the cast double and triple their appearances to cover the 25 named roles.

The opera has to be seen as Pinocchio’s gradual learning process; so that all the characters are really only seen in relation to him, they hardly develop a life of their own. But Dove’s music helps to flesh out the characters, dialogue blossoms out into small arias, so that by the end of the opera we feel we have come to know some of the smaller characters as well, such as Geppetto, the Blue Fair and Lampwick (Allan Clayton). This is also due to the strong playing from the singers, even when they’ve been away from the stage you don’t feel that they have been away, they bring some sort of emotional continuity.

But the whole structure, though it is true to Collodi’s book, is extremely dependent on the singer playing the title role, Victoria Simmonds. Here director Martin Duncan and his team have found a singer who brilliantly incarnates the wooden puppet whilst at the same time making us feel that he is a real person. In the same way that Massenet’s Manon only works if you find Manon charming, attractive and sexy, it is essential that the audience empathise with Pinocchio; the story depends on us finding him a loveable scamp rather than a tiresome child, we have to want him to become a real boy. I must confess that at first I found myself rather resistable to Pinocchio’s charms but well before the end of the opera I found that Simmonds had captured my emotional interest.

Dove’s music is tuneful, with one or two big tunes, though the economy of Middleton’s libretto means that there are not many occasions for Andrew Lloyd Webber moments. Dove has evidently gone to some trouble to produce musical characterisations for the different characters (the Blue Fairy has her own scale); whilst this may not be obvious to the general listener, it is something that their ears can pick up on and help them to differentiate the details of the plot.

For the more up tempo moments, Dove seems to have been channelling John Adams, with the dramatic impetus of his repeated chords and dynamically propelled melody lines. This meant that the big scenes were often exciting and had wonderful propulsion which helped keep the drama going.

Duncan’s production was based in a simple wooden box (designer Francis O’Connor) which was transformed for each of the short scenes (11 in act 1 and 9 in act 2). O’Connor came up with some simple but effective solutions to the transformations required of him. Pinocchio’s nose extending alarmingly when he tells lies to the Blue Fairy and the set was transformed simply but effectively from the sea to the belly of the whale.

One of the great strengths of the production and the opera was that the darker side of the story was not shirked, Pinocchio and his father) really do go through some difficult times. Though the violence and the villains are a little cartoonish, Dove takes the situations seriously and writes some dark music. All this helps make sense of Pinocchio’s final transformation and his becoming a helpful little boy is rendered all the more understandable.

The piece was slightly too long (each act lasted around 75 minutes) and I particularly felt that the ending could be pruned so that we reached the conclusion rather quicker. At a certain point it become obvious what the conclusion is going to be and I think Dove and Middleton do not really gain anything from delaying this.

Dove’s orchestration is, by and large, respecting of the singers and there was little sense of them having to strain over the orchestra. In this they were helped by David Parry, very much a singers conductor. That said, from where we were sitting in the front of the upper circle the diction was very unsatisfactory. The piece was rightly played without surtitles but I often had to strain to apprehend the words, perhaps it would have been different lower down in the theatre.

The Adventures of Pinocchio is a beautifully constructed opera, very much in the traditional mould which means that it fits very well into the schedule of a company like Opera North. The opera also seems to fulfil its roles as a family piece, the performance we went to was full of parents and children all of whom seemed to enjoy the piece and it kept their attention until the end.

If I came out, at the end, charmed rather than overwhelmed by a masterpiece, then that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Adventures of Pinocchio is very much a useful piece and I can forsee it having a long history of Christmas performances.

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