Review: Spectacle pulls the strings in opera's "Pinocchio"
The themes of Carlo Collodi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio" are the stuff of opera: love, growth, empathy, betrayal, self-sacrifice, death and rebirth. No wonder, then, that composer Jonathan Dove and librettist (and fellow Brit) Alasdair Middleton have reappropriated the story of the plucky boy-puppet, plundered by Walt Disney for his 1940 animated film. Their three-hour entertainment, which takes Collodi's title as its own, opened Saturday at the Ordway in its original production, imported by Minnesota Opera from England's Opera North (which gave the premiere in 2007). And to borrow Pinocchio's favorite adjective, it is good.
Collodi's story, published in the 1880's, has been read as a moralizing tract wrapped in a picaresque tale, as a parable of class mobility in 19th-century Italy, as a coming-of-age narrative à la "Huckleberry Finn." It is all of these, and one of the merits of Middleton's libretto is that it honors the complexity of the original, preserving much of its innuendo and matching its wordplay. But Middleton's fidelity to his source is also a liability. Heavy with incident, the libretto compels the composer to speed through long stretches of text, compromising intelligibility and forgoing opportunities for musical reflection.
Dove turns 50 in July; "Pinocchio" is his 21st opera. Its influences, John Adams foremost among them, are largely American; one also hears strains of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" (the puppet connection), Prokofiev, Britten, even Verdi. Dove's writing is assured, apt, efficient, and occasionally stirring. (The brief recognition scene for Pinocchio and Geppetto in the shark's belly is a moment of real pathos in a score that needs more of them.) He excels at devising distinct sonic signatures for his many characters. Yet his music is too often uneventful and unmemorable, lacking the sinew to bind the opera's disjunct scenes together.
This might have been fatal. But the center holds, thanks to stage director Martin Duncan, choreographer Nick Winston and designer Francis O'Connor (whose ingenious set, drab at first glance, proves magical, revealing world upon world). Their work is fantastically detailed and hugely exhilarating; their witty realization of "Fire Eater's Puppet Show," to choose but one example, is a prodigious feat of stagecraft. For sheer theatrical smarts, and for a palpable sense of wonder, this production has few rivals.
As Pinocchio, Adriana Zabala makes every word audible, and seems hardly to notice the physical demands of her role. Maureen O'Flynn (Blue Fairy), Andrew Wilkowske (Geppetto) and Rebecca Bottone (Cricket and Parrot) are standouts in a generally superb cast. Conductor Anne Manson energizes her forces, making even silences sound propulsive. The large orchestra, faced with a great many notes, plays heroically.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.