I’ve been impressed by Jonathan Dove’s art songs so I was glad to be able to take a look at one of his operas. It’s The Adventures of Pinocchio and it was recorded in a production by Opera North at Sadlers Wells in 2008. I feel a bit ambivalent about it. I really like the music but I’m not hugely engaged by the libretto. I think this is largely because of the subject matter so it may come off better for someone else.
Unsurprisingly the opera is based on the Pinocchio stories. It’s the Carlo Collodi book rather than the Disney film though and it’s quite dark. The cricket gets smashed with a mallet. Pinocchio gets hanged. And so on. It’s also moralistic in that 19th century Samuel Smilesish way. I think that’s part of what I find uncongenial. That said, it’s well constructed to appeal to a wide age range. It’s also quite long. It’s a genuine two acter with each act lasting about 75 minutes.
The music is eclectic. It’s chromatic but accessible. At times it’s almost dreamlike and at others very dramatic. I think both music and the opera as a whole work best in its large dramatic scenes. Some of the choral writing is very good. There’s some interesting writing for voice, especially for the minor characters, but no great virtuosic moments. The libretto, by Alasdair Middleton, is constructed as a series of scenes. That pretty much follows the book even where the continuity goes to pieces. For example we see the cricket killed and later we see the cricket’s ghost and then, later still, the cricket is alive again. I think the choice of scenes is judicious and the thing makes some kind of dramatic sense. It’s also (more or less) written in rhyming couplets. This largely doesn’t work for me giving parts of it a doggerel like feel.
The production by Martin Duncan, with designs by Francis O’Connor, is sort of pantomime realistic in a very British sort of way. There are lots of animals who look like people dressed up as animals. The schoolboys wear blazers and caps and the teachers have gowns and canes (I wonder whether that even makes sense to modern children or is that tradition still alive in the stories they read… I have my doubts). It’s OK to look at and it’s slick. The scenes follow each other quite seamlessly. There’s also good use of dancers and acrobats so there’s pretty much constant visual interest. The crowd scenes are well directed especially given the constraints of the narrow Sadlers Wells stage.
Performances are strong on the whole. Victoria Simmonds is very convincing as the puppet and pulls off the transition to “real life” at the end really well. Jonathan Summers as Gepetto is almost more wooden than Pinocchio but that his how the part is written. Perhaps the best performance is by Mary Plazas who handle the various incarnations of the Blue Fairy with considerable sensitivity. There are also a couple of physically and vocally interesting cameos from Rebecca Bottone as the cricket and a parrot. The rest of a largish cast are perfectly sound in a distinctly British way. The dancers are excellent. The orchestra and chorus of Opera North are very good and conductor David Parry brings the score alive to great effect.
Video direction is by Thomas Grimm and it’s a bit patchy. It’s fine in the more intimate scenes but his tendency to use too many close ups in the more crowded scenes tends to end up with the screen being full of over kinetic “stuff” without much sense of what’s going on. Given the narrowness of the stage this seems particularly egregious. Video quality on Blu-ray is fine. Curiously both surround and stereo tracks are Dolby encoded which seems a bit silly on Blu-ray but they sound OK if not as stunning as some more recent recordings.
There’s over an hour of extras on the disk. There are interviews with Dove, Duncan, Middleton and Parry; all of which are quite enlightening. The booklet includes an essay and a track listing which pretty much doubles as a synopsis. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.
At time of writing this disk is available as part of a three disk set of Fairy Tale Operas for little more than the price of any one of the disks. The companions are the 2008 Royal Opera House Hänsel und Gretel and the 2012 Glyndebourne Cunning Little Vixen; both of which are pretty good.