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The Adventures of Pinocchio (GSMD)

A talented young company triumphs in Collodi's cautionary tale of the puppet who wanted to be a real boy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

And still they come. Impossibly talented young singers continue to pour out of Britain's music colleges at a frightening rate, destined to spend their lives battling each other for jobs in an increasingly rarefied marketplace. At least the students of Guildhall School of Music and Drama always emerge prepared, fortified by the experience of an unstintingly ambitious programme of opera productions.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Pinocchio) and Samuel Smith (Cat) in The Adventures of Pinocchio (GSMD)
© Alastair Muir

The school's various departments have brought their combined expertise to The Adventures of Pinocchio and Martin Lloyd-Evans's stylised direction of the piece (which benefits from ravishing designs by Dick Bird, immaculately lit by Colin Grenfell) shows why the Silk Street Theatre stage is such a prize asset.

Jonathan Dove's opera has had several stagings since its original commission (by Opera North) in 2007, but despite the wit and succinctness of Alasdair Middleton's libretto, at three hours it is too long for its material. For that reason – more so than a musical vocabulary that evokes Britten, Sondheim and even Ravel at its L'Enfant et les sortilèges-inflected climax – it will not easily appeal to young children. Lee Hall zipped through his own dramatisation of Carlo Collodi's tale in far shorter order, and done as a musical it could probably be equally concise; but Dove's is a big piece of lyric theatre and it takes its time.

It's invidious to single out a few individuals from among so many exciting singers, particularly since the show is largely double-cast and will doubtless feature artists of equal calibre on other nights, but Marta Fontanals-Simmons in the title role gives a powerhouse performance that's a vocal and physical tour de force. Moreover, her puppet make-up (for which no one seems to be credited) it is quite extraordinary. It is hardly the young mezzo's fault that she spends so much of the evening stranded downstage centre under a pin spot.

Countertenor Tom Verney and tenor Samuel Smith (the latter a superb Johnny Inkslinger in British Youth Opera's Paul Bunyan last year) steal their scenes as the villainous Fox and Cat, Anna Gillingham sings the Blue Fairy with iridescent charm and Lauren Zolezzi buzzes with life – even in death – as the hapless Cricket.

Although a busy Chorus in evening dress with toppers and stovepipes is given plenty to do by Lloyd-Evans, there are passages in the production where the stage is under-energised. A promising schoolroom brawl, for example, goes for next to nothing, while at other times visual animation is limited to generalised bustling. These, though, are minor shortcomings in a triumphantly successful in-house project.

Hard though it is to work out the work's target audience, operaphiles will revel in in the music's ambition and colourful, percussive orchestrations – and in their expert rendition by the Guildhall Orchestra under Dominic Wheeler.

As a picaresque entertainment that's rich in solo parts for all voice types, the future of The Adventures of Pinocchio probably lies in the kind of production it receives here, a showcase for young performers. As for Jonathan Dove, now that he's adapted enough old literature (Mansfield Park and Life Is a Dream are also his) let's hope he soon turns his attention back to projects that could only work as opera.

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