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64th Wexford Festival Opera

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The Firework-Maker's Daughter [Source: Wikipedia]
04 Apr 2013

The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, London

The Opera Group’s latest event, The Firework-maker’s Daughter by David Bruce and Glyn Maxwell is currently on tour and arrived at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre last night (3 April 2013).

David Bruce and Glyn Maxwell: The Firework-Maker’s Daughter

A review by Robert Hugill

Click here for cast and production information


Composer David Bruce, whose previous operatic experience includes works for Tete a Tete, and librettist Glyn Maxwell (poet, novelist and author of three other operatic librettos) have created an operatic fable based on Philip Pullman’s book for children, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter. It is a typical quest fable, with Lila (Mary Bevan), the daughter of firework maker Lalchand (Wyn Pencarreg) going in quest of the mystical Royal Sulphur to help her make fireworks, because her father won’t teach her. She is helped by her friends, love sick elephant Hamlet (James Laing) and his keeper Chulak (Amar Muchhala) and there is a comic villain, Rambashi (Andrew Slater). As with all good quest fables, she learns that what she needed was what she had after all, her own courage and talent, and learns the value of friendship. Geoffrey Paterson conducted the instrumental ensemble, Chroma.

James Fulljames and designer Dick Bird along with the puppeteers Steve Tiplady and Sally Todd from Indefinite Articles created a magical production which produces brilliant effects (including fireworks) from very little. The two puppeteers were part of the hard working cast, taking the role of supers. Virtually all the effects were created with simple equipment, two over-head projectors featured heavily. They used a combination of effects, notably combing projection with shadow puppetry, but also involving the live cast in the shadow projection. The story culminates in a firework display competition, which was the cue for a series of dazzling visual effects.

Bird’s costumes were highly imaginative, with James Laing, playing Hamlet the white elephant, complete with elephant headdress and a very mobile (and very funny) trunk, but they combined this with projected visual effects to create Hamlet’s huge body — Hamlet is white so he has been covered with adverts! All the cast wore headdresses of some sort, which helped define the characters and as most singers played two or three roles, ensured that you always knew who was whom on stage. Most of the cast played multiple roles, and some even helped the puppeteers with the projections. James Laing doubled as the voice of the Goddess, Andrew Slater played both Rambashi and the King’s Elephant Keeper and Wyn Pencarreg played the King.

There was no fixed set, the instrumental ensemble were ranged round the back of the stage with lanterns above them, and the cast brought on everything they needed in boxes (plus a screen descending periodically from the flies). This wasn’t a production that could be done anywhere, it needed a theatre, but it was brilliantly conceived to be highly portable and not rely on anything too fancy. The result was mesmerising, a simply brilliant piece of theatre which mixed a wide variety of media into a charming and dazzling whole. No wonder the audience was pleased.

Bruce’s nine-person instrumental ensemble included an interesting mix of instruments (violin, bass, flute, clarinet, horn, accordion, harp and two percussionist), with a large amount of tuned percussion (plus one or two imaginative touches such as crumpling plastic bags). His sound world evoked Java, gamelan and the East (the rough location of the production), without being slavish. His orchestrations were magical and the sound world highly evocative.

Vocally there were some good set pieces, a rather jolly and catchy song for the pirates and some beautiful solos for Mary Bevan as Lila, including her gorgeous final incantation which was a long wordless cantilena. The result was very creditable and effective, but there were too many moments when the music seemed useful rather than really catching fire. From my perspective I felt that the biggest weakness was the recitative, this seemed to jog along quite comfortably without ever quite being memorable. This was when I felt the lack of a child companion to ask. I thought the work would have been stronger if they’d used spoken dialogue with instrumental under lay.

The piece rather ran out of steam towards the end. The firework competition was done like a game show, with a profoundly annoying host played by Andrew Slater, but then I’m not a watcher of such TV shows as the X-Factor.

With a production which was so strong, so brilliant, the score could quite easily have been edgier. Bruce’s writing was magical at times, but never challenging and seemed simply a little too comfortably well made. There were moments when the music need to raise the emotional temperature, make your spine tingle and it just didn’t quite; there was too much concern to be easy and accessible. I have seen Bruce’s work with Tete a Tete and it was fun and quirky. I hope that he gets chance to re-visit this work to give the music a little more personality, perhaps he should stop worrying about whether or not it was written for children.

I cannot praise the cast too highly, both for their dramatic and musical performances. Not every new opera can have been blessed with such strong musical presentation. Bevan was simply superb as Lila, which was quite a big role being on-stage for much of the time. Bruce’s high writing didn’t phase her and she always sounded beautiful, with a lovely sense of line. Laing was delightfully deadpan as Hamlet, and nicely expressive in his love-sick moments. Pencarreg was a sympathetic but tough father, keeping the character appealing and Amar Muchhala made Chulak very much cheeky, streetwise but appealing. It was Andrew Slater who got all the plumb comic moments, and he showed himself a fine comic.

The instrumental ensemble under Geoffrey Paterson produced a sequence of gorgeous sounds and fitted into the total theatrical ensemble with aplomb.

Ultimately, I thought that anyone attending this would be entertained, magically delighted and even mesmerised, but not challenged in any way. I am not entirely certain whether Bruce and Maxwell convinced me that this needed to be an opera

Robert Hugill

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