Minnesota Opera's polished 'Pinocchio' struggles to find its heart
By Dominic P. Papatola
Updated: 03/01/2009 09:12:34 PM CST
"The Adventures of Pinocchio" includes moments that are both humorous and harrowing. It offers images of beauty and poignancy. There are sprinkles of magic and dabs of social commentary. What it lacks is a sense of momentum and - perhaps ironically in the story of a wooden boy who yearns to be real - the ineffable touch of humanity.
Composer Jonathan Dove seemed to relish the chance to work in the realm of folktale and fantasy: He uses the orchestra - under the able baton of Anne Manson - and his singers like a toy-chest. Faced with the challenge of making a hunk of wood sing (the whimsical, opening image features a fallen trunk demanding that Geppetto "take me home and make me"), Dove gives voice to crickets, cats, donkeys and fairies in a score that flirts now and again with dissonance but remains ear-pleasing.
Librettist Alasdair Middleton doesn't hesitate to visit the seamier corners of Carlo Collodi's novel, coloring the score with dark humor: Pinocchio kills his cricket-conscience (Rebecca Bottone, trilling and flitting) early in the proceedings, but she returns later as a ghost, her antennae poking out of a white sheet. And when Pinocchio says he'd rather die than take his medicine, the Blue Fairy (Maureen O'Flynn, wise and forgiving) promptly conjures a coffin, complete with animal pallbearers.
Playing the title character, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala is on stage for much of the opera, and while the score affords her no single, show-stopping moment in which to shine, she is solid throughout. Zabala is unafraid to show us the bratty side of Pinocchio, who gives more lip service than actual effort to being good and who considers work to be a four-letter word. "Do real boys really spend all day," she muses about the utility of schoolwork, "adding just to take away?"
But for all the seeming desire to make this a story of how difficult it is to become "real" - literally for Pinocchio, figuratively for us - the opera seems emotionally muted. There's a lovely, it-takes-a-village moment at the end of the first act, in which Pinocchio swims out into the sea to rescue Geppetto and the whole company prays for his safe return as the music swells. But too seldom does either the music or the story find the urgency of that moment or drill beneath its own phantasmagoria to unearth such moments of truth.
Francis O'Connor's set seems like a simple box composed of wood planks, but - through its own machinations or lighting director Davy Cunningham's manipulations - it efficiently but elegantly renders the production's 20 scenes. O'Connor also designed the costumes, and from the woody title character to the donkeys in work boots and pigeons in planes, they consistently please the eye and pique the imagination.
Given the title and the background of the creative team, the Minnesota Opera is billing this production as family-friendly fare. Parents should know that, while this production is no Disney-fied tale, it probably won't scare a well-informed young patron. But its three hours do not pass effortlessly, and for all its polish, "Pinocchio's" emotional rewards are considerably shorter than the title character's nose.
Dominic P. Papatola can be reached at 651-228-2165.
What: "The Adventures of Pinocchio"
When: through March 8
Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Information: 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org