Boesmans - Pinocchio

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday September 10 2017

Conductor: Patrick Davin. Production: Joël Pommerat. Sets and lighting: Eric Soyer. Costumes: Isabelle Deffin. Video: Renaud Rubiano. Le directeur de la troupe, premier escroc, deuxième meurtrier, le directeur de cirque: Stéphane Degout. Le père, troisième meurtrier, le maître d’école: Vincent Le Texier. Le pantin: Chloé Briot. Deuxième escroc, le directeur de cabaret, le juge, premier meurtrier, le marchand d'ânes: Yann Beuron. La chanteuse de cabaret, le mauvais élève: Julie Boulianne. La fée: Marie-Eve Munger. Stage music: Fabrizio Cassol (saxophone and improvisation coordination), Philippe Thuriot (accordion), Tcha Limberger (gypsy violin). La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra.

I try to have a couple of new or at least recent operas in every year's schedule. More often than not the result is rewarding, though I'll never forget how, trapped in the middle of a row during L'Amour de Loin, I ached – literally - to escape. In that case, Sellars' improbably static production didn't help the score, which, while often shimmering, is an action-free zone, and Maalouf's text, which reminded me of Bertie Wooster's erstwhile fiancée Madeline Bassett (remember her? "Every time a fairy sheds a tear, a new star appears in the Milky Way", or "the stars are God's daisy chain"), was, to me, like nails on slate.

With Philippe Boesmans, there's little risk of that sort. He tends to come up with winners that soon get staged again (admittedly also the case with L'Amour de Loin, though I personally will make no effort to see it once more) and his writing is, by contemporary standards, relatively conventional. I use the word easily as, in the Brussels programme notes, he openly states his respect for the way operatic conventions send useful messages to the audience and notes how twelve-tone composition eliminated the function. In Pinocchio, happy music is in the major and sad in the minor, and his fairy is a coloratura soprano because, he says, that's what opera fairies are.

The score, for an ensemble that would be very small were it not for the abundance of tuned percussion (e.g. marimba), along with an on-stage “gipsy” band, is lively, charming and often sparkling with high woodwinds, piano, celesta and so on. As you might expect, knowing the Pinocchio story, it is also at times wistful, but never maudlin, nor does it make any special concessions for children (in Brussels there were children in the audience, but I wouldn't say it was specifically a “children's opera”). There are perfectly “ordinary” rhythms and discernible melodies, and I think it's generally agreed that Boesmans writes well for voices.

The story is narrated (by the baritone), bringing to mind, most of all, L'Histoire du Soldat, but also Peter and the Wolf and other musical moral tales, narrated or not, such as The Rake's Progress or even, as in its jauntier moments the score brings Weill to mind, Die Dreigroschenoper. I quote La Monnaie's website: “In Joel Pommerat’s hands, Pinocchio becomes a rebellious boy who throws himself into the world in search of happiness, impatient and driven by his own untamable impulses. In his stage adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s original story, Pommerat avoids any moralising tone or simplistic approach. On the contrary, he underlines the modernity and richness of the original text.”

The humour is what the French call “grinçant”, i.e. wry and not altogether funny. Pinocchio is, until his transformation at the end, a naughty, quite rude little boy with a white face and panda eyes under a hood, and jerky movements. The staging was simple and very dark indeed, sometimes indeed totally blacked out, for example to let Pinocchio's nose grow. Props such as the tree, first upright, then broken, or the narrow cage representing the prison, were starkly lit from above. Stormy seas were suggested by stage smoke and clever lighting, a forest merely by dappled light on the floor, and there were some evocative, abstract videos, mostly but not exclusively monochrome.

The fairy, like Bob Wilson's Queen of the Night, wore a dress with long skirts that raised her several yards in the air, though in this case cake-icing white. The rest of the excellent cast of six soloists shared out the remaining 15 parts, changing costumes as necessary. Stéphane Degout was outstanding, as usual, and neither he nor Yann Beuron needed supertitles.

Reviews from Aix and Brussels have ranged from “enchanting” to “soporific”. I think La Monnaie would have done better to have let us out for an interval, as in Aix: the fable is a touch slender for an uninterrupted two-hour stretch, especially when there are kids in the house. But for the score, when it comes out, as I suppose it will, I will buy it, and if it's a video, tant mieux. The composer was present on Sunday, loudly and affectionately applauded.

By the way, this was the first work to be staged in La Monnaie's partially-renovated house, but as most of the work was done behind the scenes, there was little change to see in the auditorium for two years' closure with the loss of 20% of subscribers. I read that the gilding had been restored to its original colours, but if I hadn't read it I'd never have guessed. Perhaps the chandelier had an extra sparkle...