The Adventures of Pinocchio, Grand Theatre, Leeds

A fabrication of the very best sort
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The Independent Culture

"Make me, make me!" demanded Pinocchio of Jonathan Dove and, obeying his tapping inner voice, the composer did just that. With the writer Alasdair Middleton, he has fashioned an opera, which, from the glittering opening chord and the appearance on stage of a singing log, cannot fail to beguile young theatre-goers. At Opera North's world premiere of The Adventures of Pinocchio, the older and preposterously black-tied audience was equally enthralled.

With a large cast covering the 27 named roles, there's huge scope for vivid characterisation musically, dramatically and visually. There is nothing in the score that could possibly put off anyone for whom the words "new music" send shivers up the spine.

How much of the writing is deliberate parody and how much is merely enterprising in its pastiche of existing styles and sonorities (Ravel, Stravinsky, Britten and Bernstein hover around the score), is hard to say. What is clear, however, is that Dove's melodically abundant lines are perfectly carved to match the shape and cadences of Middleton's speech-rhythms more so than is usual in operatic vocal-writing, perhaps.

Sometimes whittled down to nothing more than percussive fragments breaking a dramatic silence, the full orchestra and lusty chorus are lavishly employed elsewhere to almost Verdian effect. Pinocchio may be a patchwork of musical ideas but it is never less than engaging and enterprising. Motifs are chiselled into the score, with a zany little ascending phrase in the orchestra as Pinocchio's liar's nose grows... and grows.

It can't be easy performing with a large prosthetic honker attached to your head, but Victoria Simmonds, as the mischievous puppet hero, makes light of the challenge, singing with bags of brio and acting with boundless, boyish energy. She's no plank, despite her extremely wooden appearance and clumsy gait.

Jonathan Summers tempers his authoritative Geppetto with wisdom and warmth, James Laing's countertenor adds a sinister quality to the picaresque Fox (and Coachman, too), and Graeme Broadbent brings a dark edge to the line-up of nasty male characters that he inhabits. The casting throughout is impressive, especially in the crystalline tones of Rebecca Bottone as both airy Cricket and cackling Parrot, and Mary Plazas as the Blue Fairy, shimmering in every sense.

The action is contained within a large wooden box, onto which descend balconies, out of which open invisible windows and doors, and up from which spring pop-up trees and seascapes. Francis O'Connor's nifty set designs are an adventure in themselves, from the drab house of the impoverished Geppetto to the fabulously colourful Funland and from the gigantic Big Green Fisherman puppet to the cavernous belly of the whale. The impression is of turning the pages of a beautifully detailed and fantastic picture book.

Then there's the riot of costumes and accessories. Birds, beasts and insects of every hue are given a surreal twist in striking outfits. Characterisation is comically spot-on (I especially loved Carole Wilson's tardy Snail) and, at times, a bit scary, from the coffin-carrying rabbits to the transformation of schoolboys to welly-booted braying donkeys.

Ever inventive, the director Martin Duncan plays this Pinocchio straight, never allowing the production to grow to exaggerated proportions. David Parry draws spirited playing from the buoyant orchestra, demonstrating its versatility as both fairground band, including accordions, and as a vital instrumental force driving the action on. The chorus in its many guises holds its ground in pace and vigour. This Pinocchio is clearly for life, not just for Christmas.



In rep to 26 January (0870 121 4901), then touring to 8 March (www.operanorth.co.uk)

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