The Firework Maker’s Daughter is a wonderful entertainment: how often can we say that of a new opera? Soprano Mary Bevan who plays the title character remarks in the programme that she wasn’t expecting it to be so funny and sometimes silly, too! True - it’s full of magic and themes of growing up and responsibility, with plenty of ingeniously improvised spectacle, but there are abundant unforced laughs – and, yes, at times it is very silly indeed!
A co-production by the Opera Group and Opera North, The Firework Maker’s Daughter premiered at Hull Truck Theatre at the start of a nine-venue tour that takes in a 10-night run in New York. Glyn Maxwell’s libretto from Philip Pullman’s novel crams in masses of narrative with effortless economy. Essentially the story tells how young Lila wishes to share the firework making secrets of her father, Lalchand. When he refuses, she sets off on an adventurous journey which takes her to the Emerald Lake and the cave of the Fire Fiend Razvani. In this she is aided by Chulak, the elephant boy, and Hamlet, the love-sick elephant!
David Bruce’s score is a constant delight, from a cappella anthems to exotic percussion effects. He borrows freely from many sources, with a generic Orientalism showing especially in the writing for flute, and tunefulness keeps breaking in. The ensemble features accordion and double percussion and the nine members of CHROMA play superbly for music director Geoffrey Paterson, bringing out the wit and sense of fun as well as the drama of the music.
John Fulljames’ direction mixes ritual with informality and combines imaginatively with Steve Tiplady and Sally Todd’s puppets and projections. Dick Bird’s basic set design amounts to very little, but an assortment of screens is home to Tiplady and Todd’s puppetry and the costumes (notably Hamlet, the elegant elephant) add the colour the set lacks.
The cast of five is uniformly excellent and the performance is extremely well sung amid the adventure and the nonsense. Diction is all-important in a fairly complicated narrative and there are occasional problems with the higher voices, but expressive acting always gets the message across. Mary Bevan’s Lila acts and sings boldly, a sympathetic and uncompromising, typically determined teenage heroine. Amar Muchhala is a neat and spry Chulak, with a pleasing touch of vanity, and fields a ringing tenor when required, and Wyn Pencarreg’s Lalchand is solidly characterised and resonantly sung. His fellow-baritone Andrew Slater gets a whole series of silly parts, from the world’s most incompetent pirate to an eight-foot high king to a game-show MC, and carries them all off triumphantly. As well as manipulating his elephant trunk to great effect, James Laing makes much of the final game-changing plea to the King and his counter-tenor shines in much of Bruce’s more soulful music.
Nowadays operas so often disappear without trace after their first run, but I am confident that The Firework Maker’s Daughter will return soon and often.
The Firework Maker’s Daughter plays Hull Truck until 26 March, and the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, on 30 March. Other tour venues include Buxton Opera House (24-25 May) and Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (31 May -1 June).