Boesmans: Pinocchio CD review – a darkly imaginative vision of the wooden boy

Andrew Clements
French mezzo soprano Chloe Briot in the title role of Philippe Boesmans’ opera Pinocchio, in Aix-en-Provence in 2017. Photograph: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images

“A rite of passage, an opera for children, an opera about childhood”, is Philippe Boesmans’ characterisation of his version of Pinocchio. It’s his seventh opera, only one of which – Julie, based on Strindberg’s Miss Julie – has so far been staged in the UK. This one was jointly commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence festival and the Monnaie in Brussels, and the recording comes from the Belgian performances last year, which followed the Aix premiere.

The libretto by Joel Pommerat is adapted from his own play, which in turn, of course, stems from Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century children’s novel about the adventures of the wilful boy carved from a tree trunk, who eventually learns the value of telling the truth. Whatever Boesmans says, though, it’s not obvious that this is a work for children – with over two hours’ music and a very dark take on Pinocchio’s experiences, it’s as much a morality tale for adults as for the young, and a distinctly more challenging piece than Jonathan Dove’s “family” opera on the same subject that Opera North premiered 10 years ago.

Marie-Eve Munger (l), as a fairy, and Chloé Briot (r), as Pinocchio in Boesmans opera performed at the 2017 Aix-en-Provence festival. Photograph: AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

Boesmans and Pommerat present the narrative as a series of loosely connected scenes, framed as a show put on by an itinerant troupe of circus performers, whose ringmaster also provides the linking narration. It’s distinctly episodic and the characterisation is paper thin, so that it’s hard to feel for the characters, and anyone who knows the original story is likely to get much more from the opera than those coming to it for the first time.

Much of Boesmans’ gleefully time-travelling score, though, is a delight – nimble and imaginatively coloured, slipping effortlessly between styles – and it emerges vividly in this performance, with Chloé Briot very sparky as the errant marionette who has to learn how to be human. Stéphane Degout is outstanding as the narrator and ringmaster, a bit of a grownup Pinocchio himself, and Vincent Le Texier is the father with whom the boy is eventually reconciled.

It’s certainly a much more rewarding experience than Great Scott, the latest stage work by Jake Heggie to appear on disc. Warner Classics doesn’t exactly specialise in new music, and this recording, taken from performances in Dallas in 2015, surely appears on its Erato label only because the title role of Arden Scott, a prima donna intent on reviving a long-lost bel canto opera, was written as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. There are plenty of cutesy operatic jokes in the text and lots of pastiche in the score – everything from Rossini to Richard Strauss – but very little real music.

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