Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Boesmans - Pinocchio (Aix, 2017)

Philippe Boesmans - Pinocchio

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Emilio Pomarico, Joël Pommerat, Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Chloé Briot, Yann Beuron, Julie Boulianne, Marie-Eve Munger

ARTE Concert - 9th July 2017

I don't think that there's too much question that Pinocchio is a children's fairy tale and it's one that has a very effective and unforgettable way of impressing valuable life lessons on the consequences of lying. It's an unusual subject however for composer Philippe Boesmans and dramatist Joël Pommerat (who together previously created Au Monde for La Monnaie in 2014) to base an opera upon, so perhaps there are other aspects and contemporary relevance that can be brought out of the darker side of the story.

The Pinocchio tale is one familiar to many from the Walt Disney film, without the Disney addition of Jiminy Cricket. All the memorable scenes are there; from Pinocchio's conception as a puppet from a piece of magic wood, his impoverished childhood, he desire to go to school and be like other children, his being swindled by a couple of crooks, turning into a donkey, his ending up in the belly of a whale and his eventual transformation into a real boy. The cautionary tale moral of the story, about lying, about pride denying one's origins and the question of growing or changing into a better person are very much all brought across.

Even if it is just a fairy tale for children there's potential for a piece like Pinocchio with all those memorable scenes to have another life on the opera stage. Joël Pommerat, directing the production himself for its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival, characteristically takes a darker direct approach to the story's themes, and perhaps even incorporates a few more contemporary questions into the matter of becoming a real human by embracing cultural diversity in a wider and more multicultural society, but the work still adheres largely to its traditional themes and its childhood focus.

If it doesn't quite establish a character of its own that merits its translation to the opera stage, Boesmans' Pinocchio is certainly richly composed and fully attuned to the drama. There are inevitably reminders of the delicate emotional surrealism of Maeterlinck and Debussy in fairy tale mood and in spoken language rhythms, but they tend to take on more of a Ravel character in the context of the story. The scene where the fairy chides the naughty Pinocchio, making his nose grow for telling lies and promising to make him a real boy, is very like similar scenes in L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, with even the vocal writing heading into high-end coloratura.

Marie-Eve Munger impresses with her ability in this role of the fairy, and Chloé Briot is an engaging presence throughout as the puppet, but the singing elsewhere in this world premiere production also matches the fine writing for the voice here. Aside from Pinocchio and the fairy, who have very specific demands, the other roles are small parts for singers in multiple roles, but they are written in such a way as to make an impression. Stéphane Degout, for example, is the circus director, one of the crooks and a murderer, but his main role is that of the narrator. As mainly a spoken role, it seems a waste of such a singing voice, but Degout's narration is critical to the flow and he still manages to make it musical in the delivery.

Boesmans' music also has its own dramatic flow and colourful expression, drawing on Arabic influences for the prison scene and when the outsider Pinocchio is trying to fit in with the other cool boys, using on-stage musicians improvising in a scene that is similar to Boesmans' use of a bohemian backstreet band in Wintermärchen, his version of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Boesmans however is happy to draw on whatever sounds best fit the dramatic requirements, using accordions elsewhere to provide other 'local' colour and siren like sounds to accompany the growth of Pinocchio's nose. With Klangforum Wien in the pit conducted by Emilio Pomarico, the reduced orchestration creates a wonderful, magical sound of exquisite detail.

The benefits of working with a small orchestra also apply to Pommerat's idea of keeping the cast reduced to a small theatrical troupe playing the multiple roles. And it's very much a core troupe of performers from La Monnaie, including Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Chloé Briot and Yann Beuron, some of whom Boesmans and Pommerat have worked with in the past. It does very much give the impression of a little troupe all working together to create a close-knit unit. Pommerat's usual distancing direction would seem to work against that, the set a familiar dark, monochrome minimalist affair, but as with the flashes of brilliance in the music and the singing, the use of special effects and projections have a striking impact when used.

Whether Boesmans' opera version of Pinocchio will have a life as a fairy-tale favourite beyond its performances at Aix-en-Provence remains to be seen. It's a fairly faithful presentation of the main themes and scenes of the children's story, and it doesn't particularly have anything new to add to it in the way of contemporary relevance, although I daresay that a different director than Joël Pommerat could bring much more out of the potential shown here. As it stands however, Pinocchio the opera is an entertaining piece with much to admire in the scoring and the skillfully played performances.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert