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Jonathan Dove: The Adventures of Pinocchio
22 Jul 2010

The Adventures of Pinocchio

The operas of British composer Jonathan Dove enjoy a fairly high level of both critical and popular support in the U.K., where his best known work, Flight, premiered at the prestigious Glyndebourne Festival.

Jonathan Dove: The Adventures of Pinocchio (Libretto by Alasdair Middleton)

Pinocchio: Victoria Simmonds; Geppetto: Jonathan Summers; The Blue Fairy: Mary Plazas; Cricket / Parrot: Rebecca Bottone; Puppeteer / Ape-Judge / Ringmaster: Graeme Broadbent; Lampwick: Allan Clayton; Cat: Mark Wilde; Fox / Coachman: James Laing; Pigeon / Snail: Carole Wilson. Opera North Chorus and Orchestra. David Parry, conductor. Martin Duncan, stage director. Recorded live at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, on 29 February and 1 March 2008.

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Subsequently a few U.S. companies have piloted Flight (if you will) to stage including Opera Theater of St. Louis and Boston Lyric Opera. Other than that, Dove is a fairly unknown name here.

A viewing of one of his more recent efforts, The Adventures of Pinocchio, in its premiere run from the Opera North company in 2007, doesn’t offer evidence that Dove’s work is set to make a breakthrough here in the U.S. However, his score to Alasdair Middleton’s libretto exhibits a formidable level of professionalism and orchestral imagination (did your reviewer hear a banjo at one point?). Combined with a playful and creative staging by Martin Donovan (with sets and costumes by Francis O-Connor), the resulting work seems made for DVD — especially as captured in the crisp and detailed picture of a Blu-Ray set.

That said, an opera being “made for DVD” shouldn’t be mistaken for unreserved praise. If Dove’s music were removed or reduced to soundtrack status, this production would probably be just as charming and entertaining. Dove can create superficially appealing music, but it comes off as derivative. Bits reminiscent of Britten, Sondheim, and especially Janáček (think Cunning Little Vixen) pop up frequently, and one delightful scene for the Ape-Judge has a swaggering tune like something from Prokofiev. There’s a fine line between revealing one’s influences and using them as the foundation for one’s own work, and Dove resides in the latter part. With no keen musical identity of his own, the score can’t establish itself as central to the work’s value as a truly first-rate operatic score should.

Middleton’s libretto certainly gives Dove ample opportunity to show off the composer’s range of influences. As stated over and over again in the bonus feature interviews of composer, librettist, conductor and director, this opera more closely follows the original source material of Carlo Collodi’s novel than the more famous Walt Disney cartoon chose to do. Written serially, Collodi’s novel is a picaresque, episodic and fantastic in invention. This requires a huge cast, with several singers taking on more than one role. If any one scene fails to grasp a viewer’s attention, that viewer need not grow too impatient, for another and quite different scene will be up shortly. There is no narrative arc to speak of - Pinocchio actually “learns” his lesson about being a bad boy by the end of act one, but he has to learn it all over again, and again and again, in act two, before the curtain can finally come down. The tone throughout veers between a light-hearted playfulness that children will enjoy to a darker-hued vision that will keep an adult’s interest. The nearest point of comparison seems to be Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel — among that greater opera’s many virtues, it is much briefer. The Adventures of Pinocchio runs to around two and a half hours.

The title role goes to a mezzo, here in the person of Victoria Simmonds. Her pleasant voice retains a high degree of femininity, although her acting is boyish enough. O’Connor’s ingenious costume makes Simmonds into a cartoonish yet believable figure. The huge supporting cast features many amusing caricatures, with Mark White’s Cat and James Laing’s Fox, two con artist animals, making particularly strong impressions. Established baritone Jonathan Summers seems oddly strained by Gepetto’s music, and no emotional connection really happens between him and the boy of wood, sapping the ending of any resonance. Mary Palzas apparently has a substantial career as a dramatic soprano in the UK. In the key role of The Blue Fairy, she has a strong stage presence but the voice has a lot more edge than one might think a Fairy would possess.

David Parry and the Opera North orchestra do well by Dove’s eclectic score. As operatic entertainment The Adventures of Pinocchio, while overlong, offers much, but it falls short of being an authentic accomplishment. Should composer Dove move beyond his influences, he may well yet prove to a major voice.

Chris Mullins

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