The Firework-Maker’s Daughter

Where are the fireworks?

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No wonder composer David Bruce was drawn to Philip Pullman’s masterly children’s novel, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter: it has all the elements one could want in a story for the stage: an exotic landscape, talking animals, a feisty young heroine on a quest spliced with comic interludes, and a competitive firework display as grand finale. The narrative inspired a charming, atmospheric score and a group of engaging characters.

Sadly, the production felt – literally - like a damp squib.

It was unfortunate, perhaps, that I’d spent the morning at the Hayward Gallery’s spectacular Light Show: from the crystalline ‘frozen-animation’ water jets of Ólafur Elíasson to the computerised wizardry of Jim Campbell’s exploded views, here was the creative power of light at its most inspiring. And The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, should be a gift to a lighting designer. But for some perverse reason, Guy Hoare chose a dimly lit style (and the cave-like Linbury needs all the light it can get), the odd ineffectual torch having to suffice to show us faces or the vaguest of fire fiends, and the climactic ‘fireworks’ involved waving bits of coloured acetate or smearing pen and ink under a slide projector. The children I went with were distinctly non-plussed.

Shadow puppetry is a modern-day must have for children’s productions, and there were times here when Indefinite Articles’ figures had purpose, showing the stately elephant move (only its head was a fabulous mask) or the heroine Lila growing up, or the three characters caught in a prison. But too much of the shadow puppetry was ineffectual and labour-intensive: on a scale of home-spun well below Key Stage two. 

I hasten to add that the musical performance was first-rate, with a vivacious soprano Mary Bevan in the title role, a charismatic tenor Amar Muchhala as the elephant-scrubber Chulak, and Hamlet the love-sick elephant luminously sung by countertenor James Laing. Bass-baritone Andrew Slater’s hopeless optimist Rambashi gets the best lines and his jocular sketches were highlights, and easy to hear. For a children’s opera, too many of Glyn Maxwell’s witty libretto was buried, (not helped by baritone Wyn Pencarreg’s Lalchand being sung at the side by Miles Horner) - subtitles were needed.

Bruce has woven together scintillating timbres and scales from various ‘oriental’ traditions, be it Chinese, Indian and Indonesian, in a crafty weave using bass, harp, violin, winds, accordion and well-chosen tuned percussion subtly realised by CHROMA ensemble. As he says himself, he’s unashamedly interested in the ‘surface’ of the music, and this comes across in a teeming, tingling fantastical score that wittily references other operas (a lovely Wagner moment when the German firework-maker comes on, and a cod-Neapolitan song for Signor Scorchio, his Italian rival). But some pentatonic phrases began to wear thin in the second act, which felt dramatically slack, and one couldn’t help thinking the whole opera could have been tightened into a more intensive 60 minute show.

It’s got bags of potential, but next time, let there be light!