Monday 10 March 2014

Dove's Pinocchio at the Guildhall School

Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Pinocchio at Guildhall School: Picture Credit Alastair Muir
Marta Fontanals-Simmons
picture Credit Alastair Muir
Jonathan Dove - The Adventures of Pinocchio: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 8 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Vividly imaginative production of Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton's opera

The Adventures of Pinocchio was Jonathan Dove's 21st opera, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton. Commissioned by Opera North, it was premiered by them in 2007, with the production coming to London in 2008. The opera has since been premiered in Germany (2008), North America (2009) and Russia (2011). The production of the opera by Guildhall School of Music and Drama represented the work's first performance by students, and a welcome return to London for the opera. Martin Lloyd-Evans production at the Guildhall School's Silk Street Theatre (we caught the performance on 8 March), was designed by Dick Bird and conducted by Dominic Wheeler. The production was double cast, we saw Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Pinocchio, Piran Legg as Gepetto, Lauren Zolezzi as Cricket, Anna Gillingham as the Blue Fairy and Joshua Owen Mills as Lampwick.

Dick Bird's designs (with Susannah Henry as Associate Designer) make highly imaginative use of the space as well as being a brilliant solution to doing the opera on a budget in a small theatre. The opera opened with the chorus dressed in black Victorian formal gear, and they were present throughout the entire opera. The basic set was a large brick structure reminiscent of a Victorian industrial building, and when not singing the chorus watched the action from the sides. They didn't just watch, they also took part by fetching and carrying props as well as manipulating them. Most of the theatrical magic required by the plot was thus created by the performers themselves. This extended to details such as the sea monster's mouth and Pinocchio's nose, when each time it got longer one of the watching spectators put a new nose on Fontanals-Simmons. There was much use of puppetry, both for the scene in the puppet booth but also to give Pinocchio a tiny body for parts of the action, again this was done by the cast in front of the audience to magical effect. Perhaps the most thrilling moment was the act 1 finale, with chorus members manipulating the sheets representing waves and the two singers (Piran Legg as Geppetto and Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Pinocchio) manipulating small models of themselves, creating the most vivid kind of theatrical magic.

Frazer B Scott, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Alison Rose, Lawrence Thackeray in Pinocchio at Guildhall: picture credit Alastair Muir
Frazer B Scott, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Alison Rose, Lawrence Thackeray
picture credit Alastair Muir
The very Victorian setting, complete with satanic mills in the background of the act two, lent a nice element of darkness to the tale. The joys were relatively rudimentary, even the prospect of fun-land was pretty simple and not a gaudy excess. This gave the re-telling of the familiar tale a nicely dystopic element.

Because of the picaresque nature of the plot, there are few large roles in the opera with the exception of the title role and that is huge. Fontanals-Simmons gave a mesmerising performance as the naughty puppet. Present on stage for virtually the whole opera, her account of the role was a tour-de-force made all the more remarkable for seeming so natural and clear. In the first half she did not allow charm to get too much in the way of Pinocchio's annoying naughtiness and there were certainly moments when you wanted to slap the character; but that is the point. In act two her Pinocchio made a very poignant journey learning the result of his mistakes.

The Blue Fairy is a curious character, her raison d'etre is never explained. Anna Gillingham was dressed in black with black hair, looking rather like Elizabeth Barrett Browning except with a blue face; an effect which served to exacerbate the rather creepy nature of the characters. Gillingham sang the parts coloratura with poise and beauty, this fairy certainly was magical. Piran Legg brought a remarkably depth and gravity to his performance as Geppetto. Legg never made you feel he was acting old, and gave a finely centred performance as the old man, with some profoundly touching moments.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Samuel Smith in Pinocchio at Guildhall: picture credit Alastair Muir
Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Samuel Smith
picture credit Alastair Muir
The remaining cast were all faultless, creating a superb ensemble performance in which there was no weak link. There are too many to comment on individual performances simply listing them gives you a feel for the broad range: Lauren Zolezzi (Cricket, Parrott), Rick Zwart (Barker) Lawrence Theckeray (Arlecchino puppet), Alison Rose (Rosaura puppet), Frazer B Scott (Pantalone puppet), Szymon Wach (Fire-eater, Ape Judge, Big Green Fisherman, Ringmaster, Farmer), Samuel Smith (Cat), Tom Verney (Fox, Coachman), Martin Hassler (Owl Doctor), Robin Bailey (Crow Doctor) Bethan Langford Beetle Doctor), Emma Kerr (Pigeon, Snail), Dominic Sedgwick (Coal Merchant), Dominic Walsh (Bricklayer), Joshua Owen Mills (Lampwick), David Shipley (Drum Maker), Chloe Treharne (Echo), Jessica Dandy (Echo), Dagmar Seromska (Echo). The doublings are all those used in the original production, which meant that Szymon Wach was extremely hard working doing four smaller roles and creating a distinctively different character in each.

The orchestra under Dominic Wheeler made Dove's score expressive and exciting. There were a few moments when you were aware that Dove's exciting scoring makes life hard for the younger singers but overall the orchestra accompanied very finely.

No surtitles were used, which was admirable and generally diction was good. One or two of the singers were not singing in their native language rose to the challenge.

I still think that the opera is too long. No amount of dazzling theatrics and fine performance could disguise the fact that at 75 minutes the first act had rather too many adventures in it and the way Pinocchio meets the Cat and Fox twice does have an unwelcome element of Groundhog Day to it. Only when we get to the second act, where Pinocchio gradually learns and where his journey has a clear emotional arc does the narrative grip from start to finish. The performances at the Guildhall School did much to disguise the work's shortcomings and the combination of Wheeler, Lloyd-Evan and Bird with the absorbing performances of the students gave the work a very strong hand.

This was a superbly imaginative evening in the theatre, and one of the biggest shows that the Guildhall School has mounted. It certainly paid off and the only pity is that after four performances this piece of theatrical magic will disappear.

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