wed 24/04/2024

The Firework-Maker's Daughter, Opera North, Touring | reviews, news & interviews

The Firework-Maker's Daughter, Opera North, Touring

The Firework-Maker's Daughter, Opera North, Touring

Dazzling, low-fi stage effects paired with an attractive, sophisticated score

Mary Bevan's Lila faces her fire demonsRobert Workman

Perhaps the real heroes of David Bruce and Glyn Maxwell’s new, family-friendly opera are the overhead projectors wielded by puppeteers Steve Tiplady and Sally Todd. They’re put into action as soon as the music starts, shining a charming homemade credit sequence onto a screen seemingly made from an old bedsheet.

Maxwell’s faithful adaptation of Philip Pullman’s source novel has the young heroine Lila (the excellent Mary Bevan) defying her father Lachlan’s wishes to have her married off and pursuing a safe career. Instead, she boldly goes in search of the mythical secrets which she believes will enable her to continue the familial pyrotechnic tradition. Her friend Chulak (tenor Amar Muchhala) sets out in pursuit as Lila begins her quest for the Royal Sulphur, guarded by a fierce fire demon in a distant mountain.

There's a chamber-scale Ride of the Valkyries parody and the naffest, cheesiest bit of Italian circus music imaginable

This isn’t yet a perfect work: you’re best mugging up on Pullman’s book before watching, younger children may find the early scenes confusing and protracted, and Maxwell’s libretto isn’t always audible. Happily, it rapidly quickens in pace; Lila’s birth and growth are depicted by showing her as a shadow-projected infant, swelling in size as the backlight is pulled back. Director John Fulljames makes marvellous use of such shadow techniques (pictured below right) – characters are often shown as monochrome outlines, miraculously as expressive as their flesh and blood counterparts.

Tiplady and Todd, clad in black, are onstage throughout, manipulating projectors, pens, kitchen implements and torches. Their presence is never intrusive. Especially delightful is their contribution to the portrayal of the lovesick white elephant Hamlet, his pale, advertisement-adorned body given substance with the aid of a shrewdly positioned acetate transparency. There’s a beautifully effective jungle scene, its various inhabitants suggested with little more than a few simple pen strokes and sensitive use of percussion.

Yet more wondrous moments come in the fast-moving second act; Lila and her father have to fight for their lives in a firework competition, and their frenzied creativity is evoked with the aid of primary coloured OHP pens. The competition itself is both jaw-droppingly effective and very, very funny; rival entrants Puffenflasch and Scorcini’s fireworks evoked with ink, sand, coloured water and drops of oil in what looks like a pyrex casserole dish. All to the sonic accompaniment of a chamber-scale Ride of the Valkyries parody and the naffest, cheesiest bit of Italian circus music imaginable. As you’d expect, Lila and her father take the prize; Lila’s own display treated to music of rare beauty and purity.

Bruce deserves credit for never musically talking down to his audience. His eclectic, glittering score serves the narrative perfectly, reflecting Pullman’s non-specific Indo-Oriental locations. It’s very well played, each twist and turn skilfully negotiated by the ensemble Chroma under Geoffrey Paterson. You admire Bruce’s chutzpah in having a countertenor (James Laing) sing the part of the elephant, often accompanied by solo harp. It works, though – in an opera with only one female character, Laing’s voice adds a welcome touch of brightness to the vocal ensemble. Good too is Wyn Pencarreg as Lalchand, backed up by Andrew Slater’s gormless wide boy Rambashi, always looking in vain for a business opportunity. It’s the visuals that are the star though; any theatrical producer operating on a limited budget needs to see what miracles are achieved here with the simplest of means.

Fireworks are evoked with ink, sand, coloured water and drops of oil in what looks like a pyrex casserole dish


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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