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Review: ‘Pinocchio,’ the Opera, Is a Hit For a Renovated Theater

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Stéphane Degout in Philippe Boesmans’s “Pinocchio” at La Monnaie in Brussels. Mr. Degout plays a theater director who also slips into roles of a crook, a murderer and a circus ringleader.

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Patrick Berger/ArtComPress

BRUSSELS — A major opera house opened its season with a contemporary work on Wednesday. And when the lights went up, the stormiest ovations weren’t for an eminent maestro or famous diva, but for the 81-year-old composer. It’s undeniable: Philippe Boesmans’ “Pinocchio,” which inaugurated the newly renovated La Monnaie theater here, is a hit.

With a libretto and stage direction by Joël Pommerat, this adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s tale of a marionette’s path to truth and redemption is a darkly entertaining piece of music theater. Deftly probing the nature of honesty, accountability and freedom with a blend of magic, comedy and an ethical quest, it’s a “Magic Flute” for our times.

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Marie-Eve Munger, left, as the fairy and Chloé Briot, with the elongated nose, as Pinocchio.

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Patrick Berger/ArtComPress

Mr. Boesman’s score is an exuberant, slippery mix of styles, full of onomatopoeic effects and witty allusions. Buzzing brass render the sound of a wood carver’s saw; an upward howling siren, used in Varèse’s pathbreaking “Amériques,” measures the sudden, lie-induced growth of Pinocchio’s nose. The most unexpectedly delightful feature is the three-member band of stage musicians — playing a saxophone, an accordion and a tangy violin — that adds vibrant improvised interjections in different folkloric idioms.

Commissioned with the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France and first performed there in July, “Pinocchio” marks the Brussels company’s return to its graceful Neo-Baroque theater. In the summer of 2015, it closed its doors for what was meant to be a single season of renovations. But successive delays made the company homeless for a second year, and at too short notice to rent other spaces.

It was forced to set up tent on the outskirts of town. (Literally.) During this peripatetic phase, the company lost 20 percent of its subscribers, though a spokesperson said it had regained most for the coming season. In a statement, Peter de Caluwe, the general director of La Monnaie, insisted the experience had brought benefits: The organization learned to think on its feet; the temporary performance space, with a single cafeteria in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, created the kind of close bond between performers and technical crews otherwise known only on tour; and opera, as an art form, had to assert itself without the attraction of a glamorous, gilded theater.

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A view of the renovated auditorium of La Monnaie.

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Philippe de Gobert/La Monnaie

But ever since the adventurous reign of Gerard Mortier in the 1980s, La Monnaie has built trust with its audience. Pushback against modern productions and esoteric repertory is rare. Mr. Boesman’s new opera fits well into the theater’s modern tradition, addressing issues of social injustice that are wrapped in an accessible, kaleidoscopic score and wedded to a story that seems designed to lure families with older children. (Ideally children weaned on the movies of Tim Burton and able to weather the production’s frightening aspects.)

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