Take a naughty wooden boy, a loving father and caring blue fairy godmother, add a sly and wicked cat and fox, a friendly cricket and snail, a big green fisherman, a giant whale, a circus with acrobats and other weird and wonderful characters and you start to get an idea of what composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton had in mind for the world premiere of Pinocchio in this production given by Opera North.
This is an epic undertaking for the company, with a named cast of nearly thirty, a full chorus, dancers and acrobats and a pit full to bursting. They have certainly taken a risk with this one and a considerable amount of money has been invested. Only time will tell if all this has paid off, but given the encouraging reaction on the first night, it's clear that Pinocchio delivers a fine festive offering and I would speculate that it will be a hit with the young and old alike for several seasons to come.
From the outset this opera moves at a fast pace with scene changes that magically transform every few minutes. The story of Pinocchio needs no introduction; however this adaptation is far darker and mysterious than perhaps childhood memories of Walt Disney might indicate.
In the title role and making her Opera North debut, Victoria Simmonds as Pinocchio gives an energetic performance. It is difficult to judge her true vocal qualities as the part does not require great vocal gymnastics, with the exception of one or two pieces which she executes with beautiful clarity. Her impoverished and loving father, Geppetto, is played by Opera North regular Jonathan Summers, who gives a strong and lasting performance in this relatively small role.
This really is an ensemble piece and all are strong players with many taking on several other roles, but most notable are Rebecca Bottone as the Cricket and Parrot with her trill and mimicry which is most convincing, and the evil and sly duo of the Cat and Fox expertly acted and sung by Mark Wilde and James Laing.
The Pigeon and Snail are both played by Carole Wilson, who gives a comical performance throughout. The star of the show for me was another Opera North regular Mary Plazas, who sang exquisitely in the role of the Blue Fairy. Last but not least, the Chorus of Opera North was aided by Jonathan Dove's score, whose cliff hanger choral endings owe something to Wagner and show the true power and musicality of this talented group.
Dove's score is full of melodic orchestral passages and makes uses a wise range of instruments. For a contemporary score it is not at all discordant and in parts there is some very rich and moving music which expresses what is happening on stage. All this was kept together by conductor David Parry who, as far as anyone can tell from a new opera never heard before, was spot on with the Orchestra of Opera North.
Inspired staging and costumes by Francis O'Connor, lively direction by Martin Duncan and strong input from the whole production team contributed to a very entertaining evening. The only real pitfall I can find with this opera is its length: at three hours it could just prove a little testing for a younger audience. Surely one or two bits could be cut, especially the clumsy and unimportant Big Fisherman scene which may have been fun to make but is not dramaticall justified.
Nevertheless, Pinocchio is the kind of challenge that Opera North does best; give them a blank canvas and they will create an original and highly creative piece of theatre. They have far exceeded all expectations, an opera which changes form so many times at a rapid and unrelenting pace.
The season continues in Leeds until the end of January then on a national tour till March 2008. Don't miss it.
By Paul Dalton
Read our interview with Victoria Simmonds on singing Pinocchio and Martin Duncan on directing these performances of Pinocchio here.
Photos: Clive Barda