If I wrote that I loved Philippe Boesmans’ Pinocchio, my nose may grow a little. Commissioned to open the 2017 Festival D'Aix en Provence, Boesmans’ opera finds the 81-year-old composer in collaboration with Joël Pommerat, whose libretto is based on his existing 2008 stage play. Between the two of them, they shift the tale far away from any cutesy Disney fantasy, returning it to the harsh reality of Carlo Collodi's original fable.

Whether it’s an opera for children or not is a moot point. There are a few fart jokes to keep younger members of the audience amused and Pinocchio’s nose growing spectacularly beyond Chloé Briot's diminutive body length is a hoot, but the main focus for Boesmans and Pommerat is an exploration of the nature of truth. The opera is stage managed by Stéphane Degouts dark ringmaster, heading a travelling troupe of actors, who begins by promising to tell us the truth. But what is truth? “Can you truly change in life?” he directly asks the audience at one point (drawing a few direct responses). It is only when the wooden wild child who lies to get himself out of trouble finds himself trapped inside a whale with his father that he learns the meaning of truth. It’s a moral tale, with as much to teach adults as children.

However, the work is episodic, lurching from one escapade to another so that what emerges is a series of operatic snapshots without time for character development. Pinocchio’s reunion with his father inside the whale would be far more touching had we seen a loving relationship from the start. Instead, the puppet is violently sawn from a tree trunk to dissonant chords, from which a petulant, money-grabbing teenager emerges fully formed, immediately berating his father for being too poor to provide him with a new schoolbook. It doesn’t help that Chloé Briot’s Pinocchio is hooded with white face and black panda eyes like something from the horror movie The Bride of Chucky. At no point did I find myself caring for the puppet's plight, even when conned into believing there is a magic money tree (where have we heard that one recently?). Pommerat’s production is dimly lit for the most part, with eyes straining to make some connection with the characters. Drop screens are used once too often, robbing the story of its moments of magic.

Boesmans’ music is chameleon-like, adapting itself brilliantly to suit each dramatic situation. His score is written for a small ensemble – here the excellent Klangforum Wien – with prominent roles for piano and percussion in the pit. A trio of saxophone, violin and accordion acts as the troupe’s on-stage band, providing witty folk- or jazz-related interludes for scenes in the cabaret or of classroom anarchy. Boesmans employs abrupt brass declamations or muted blues trumpet at points, as well as arabic chant when Pinocchio is unfairly sentenced to ten months in prison by a fantastical judge with a sheep's head. Boesmans’ vocal writing is grateful, with dizzying coloratura for the fairy godmother figure sent to provide the puppet with moral guidance. The ringmaster, however, spends much of his time addressing the audience in speech, a waste of Degout’s talents, although his smooth baritone was heard to fine effect in his other roles and his stage presence is never less than riveting. 

After a cloudy start, Chloé Briot shone as the puppet, throwing herself – physically and vocally – into every challenge. Vincent Le Texier’s gruff father was effective as were tenor Yann Beuron’s multiple incarnations. Best of all was Marie-Eve Munger’s fairy, her filigree coloratura as delicate as French lace, towering over Pinocchio in a steepling white gown. When she spun her high notes, even I felt a dash of magic amid the grim setting.