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BOESMANS: Pinocchio

CD Button Briot, Munger, Boulianne; Degout, Le Texier, Beuron; Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie, Davin. French text, no translation. Cypres CYP 4647 (2)

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PHILIPPE BOESMANS is long overdue for an American premiere. In the past few decades, the eighty-two-year-old Belgian composer has produced some of the finest works of contemporary opera. His German-language settings of classic plays—including Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Schnitzler’s Ronde—reveal a keen understanding of opera as theater. Pinocchio is his second collaboration with librettist and director Joël Pommerat, who adapted Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel into French. The leader of a theater troupe narrates the marionette’s misadventures, as players in the company fill the roles of various tempters who dupe Pinocchio. The fable is stripped down to its most basic elements: all the anthropomorphic animals have been fully humanized, and most of the characters go by generic titles instead of their familiar Italian names (e.g. “the Father” instead of “Geppetto”). But Pommerat may have been too liberal in his whittling: much of the charm of the story is lost, and there are scenes that no longer make sense. What’s more, the librettist sadistically restores moments of violence that were cut for the Disney film: poor Pinnoch’ screams in pain as he’s chainsawed from a tree, and he’s later hanged, beaten and drowned. Photos of Pommerat’s nightmarish 2017 staging at Brussels’s Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie suggest he was going for one of those obnoxiously dark retellings of fairytales that have become so popular. 

But it’s easy to overlook these flaws after hearing Boesmans’s score, which instills that sense of magic missing in Pommerat’s Freudian interpretation. The composer’s Straussian tonal language is often achingly beautiful: there’s a studied naïveté in his music’s unabashed lyricism, evoking bittersweet nostalgia for a lost Romanticism. Boesmans’s masterful orchestrations sparkle in the hands of Patrick Davin and the ensemble of La Monnaie; the accompaniment is alive with activity, as instruments recombine to produce colorful new timbres. The composer infuses this sound world with the music of childhood—toy-soldier marches, nursery rhyme ditties and traces of other storybook operas, such as Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges and Ravel’s Enfant et les Sortilèges. Even the more gruesome episodes are rendered kid-friendly by Boesmans’s cartoonish “Mickey Mousing.” The instrumentalists generate hilarious musical sound effects, including leitmotivic representations of Pinocchio’s iconic transformations: an ascending portamento line on string harmonics stands in for the lying puppet’s nasal elongation, reversing into a descending donkey bray for his metamorphosis into a jackass. In keeping with Pommerat’s theater-troupe scenario, Boesmans has placed onstage a trio of sax, violin and accordion, which plays delightfully out-of-tune snatches of klezmer, gypsy jazz and Parisian cabaret music.

As the marionette-turned-real-boy, mezzo Chloé Briot embodies a lovable little brat, imitating the feigned vocal gruffness that adolescents put on when they want to sound tough. Vincent Le Texier characterizes Pinocchio’s father as a simpleton with his slow and deliberate delivery, but the bass-baritone’s embracing tone conveys the Father’s generous paternal love. The Troupe Director is played with fast-talking, carnival-barker showmanship by baritone Stéphane Degout; much of his text is left unset, notably a rather tedious stretch of spoken narration when the whale belches out our wooden hero (though Boesmans provides a vivid musical depiction in the orchestra). Marie-Eve Munger is radiant as the beneficent fairy, her glittering soprano trilling higher and higher over celesta as she pronounces the puppet’s name. 

This set comes with a bonus documentary on Boesmans’s life and works, including footage of rehearsals for Pinocchio.  —Joe Cadagin

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