The future of opera is in good hands, if Tuesday night’s opening of Jonathan Dove's The Adventures of Pinocchio at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama is any indication. There was much to savour in this imaginative production, with exquisite performances and staging alike.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Pinocchio) © Alastair Muir
Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Pinocchio)
© Alastair Muir

Dove and Alasdair Middleton have turned the story of Pinocchio into an operatic adventure. In his efforts to remain faithful to Collodi’s original, Middleton’s libretto is quite lengthy in Act I. From an adult perspective, Pinocchio’s repeated failures make it hard to warm to his plight. That we didn’t lose all hope was down to a stunning performance from Marta Fontanals-Simmons, utterly convincing as the little wooden boy, with a mezzo just as polished. In Act II, she fully explored the character’s growth, her efforts paying off in the moving final scenes, with all thoughts of the selfish child forgotten and the reward of becoming a real boy feeling entirely deserved.  

Guildhall School did not shy away from the adult nature of the opera. Some of the humour didn’t always work (the sexual undertones of the Cat swinging a rope from between his legs were rather grating) but the puppet show was superbly funny, with Lawrence Thackeray, Alison Rose and Frazer B. Scott giving sizzling performances (almost literally in one case). Samuel Smith and Tom Verney also clearly enjoyed themselves as the Cat and the Fox, with Verney’s countertenor especially oily as they swindled Pinocchio. Martin Lloyd-Evans and Victoria Newlyn deserve praise for matching the level of acting to the singing, and solving scene and prop changes through creative direction.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Pinocchio) with Lawrence Thackeray, Alison Rose and Frazer B. Scott © Alastair Muir
Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Pinocchio) with Lawrence Thackeray, Alison Rose and Frazer B. Scott
© Alastair Muir

Credit must also go to Dick Bird, the production designer, for an extraordinary set, wonderfully created by the Technical Theatre students. The attention to detail was most impressive; after Pinocchio’s nose was cut back down to its original size, there were wood shavings on the floor around him. Act II’s Monster Fish (a great combination of lighting and props) had a comically dangling uvula. Further humour was mined from the props at the end of Act I, at the sight of a tiny marionette Pinocchio swimming towards a boat to rescue his father.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Pinocchio) © Alastair Muir
Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Pinocchio)
© Alastair Muir

The costume department joined in the fun, with garish costumes adorning Lauren Zolezzi’s Cricket and Parrot and Emma Kerr’s Pigeon and Snail. These were matched by similarly colourful performances, with Kerr’s languid snail deservedly generating the biggest laughs in the second half. Anna Gillingham was stunning as the serene Blue Fairy, with a wonderful rich soprano, and Joshua Owen Mills brought a wonderful simplicity to Pinocchio’s friend, Lampwick. It will be interesting to see how he fares as the duplicitous Cat in Thursday and Monday’s performances (the show is double cast in a number of roles). It was a shame that the chorus had little more to do in the first half than provide prop and scene changes, and at times their mass presence seemed unnecessary. In the second half, they were called upon far more frequently, giving momentum to the story and some rousing ensembles. Similarly, David Shipley seemed underutilized as the Drum-maker; one would hope to hear more from him in the future.

Equal enjoyment emanated from the orchestra, and it was as easy to forget that these were students as it was the singers. Only very occasionally were the voices overpowered as the orchestra forgot that they were not in a full-sized opera house. Dominic Wheeler masterfully juggled all the influences in the music (echoes of Mahler, Verdi, Britten, Strauss, Walton, Holst and Sondheim were all heard) and brought out a sparking sound from the pit. Dove’s music is very descriptive, with recognisable leitmotifs, but no formal arias. The ambition of Guildhall School of Music and Drama must be applauded. The Adventures of Pinocchio is hugely demanding in all areas and this successful production does the work great credit.

****1