'The Firework-Maker's Daughter' – The Opera Group and Opera North
A string of lanterns light a murky street scene, and everything is grubby and singed. ‘The Firework Maker’s Daughter’ begins with the entrance of Hamlet, the king's Great White Elephant, fully laden with boxes and crates. His front end is counter tenor James Laing, wearing trousers made of beautifully crumpled white fabric and a huge lycra head-mask with a very expressive trunk. It is light and large enough to allow the elephant's surprisingly high and mournful voice to be clearly heard.
When Laing steps aside, the boxes become a battered street-seller’s handcart and the back-end of the elephant is projected onto a huge screen, with Laing in place. The effect is terrific. And so the bar is set high and we are drawn into the magically compelling low-tech world of a play based on the novels by Philip Pullman, where puppetry and opera meet seamlessly.
Simple shadow puppetry is expertly delivered by puppeteers Steve Tiplady and Sally Todd of Indefinite Article. The charmingly handmade title sequence plays out on a filthy cloth slung above the cart, while in the handcart a shadow baby Lila gurgles and kicks her legs. As the light pulls back she quickly outgrows the cart and steps out onto a piece of paper to the side of the cart. “Teach me, teach me!” she demands of her father, Lalchand (Wyn Pencarreg). Tiplady deftly adds another sheet of paper to catch the growing girl. Fully grown Lila (Mary Bevan) steps in and we have effectively been introduced to Lila as both human and puppet.
All the characters in ‘The Firework-Maker's Daughter’ exist in three forms: human opera singer, an ingenious body puppet head-mask and mini shadow puppet. It is the seamless shifts between human and puppet worlds that assert the expertise of Tiplady and Todd. Together with director John Fulljames and set and costume designer Dick Bird, they have devised an effective solution to the challenge of puppets in opera. The rules are established early, which the audience happily accepts.
The opera cracks on and visual storytelling is in perfect harmony with the score, libretto and flavour of Philip Pullman's novel. Lila, desperate to learn the secrets of firework making, sets off to the Fire-Fiend’s cave. We arrive at the cave where scorched fabric, wafting to make a sandstorm, catches the projected shadows of some skeletons, who dance and loom with the movements of the cloth. It’s simple and very effective.
The firework competition scene is witty and clever, with each participant taking charge of an overhead projector and using sand and coloured gels, or water and oil, to attempt to make the greatest spectacle on the screen. Of course Lila wins, freeing her friends and father for the finale. A heady, marriage of words, sounds and images tell the glittering story – it’s enchanting.
An opera in two acts
Based on the novel by Philip Pullman
Music by David Bruce Libretto by Glyn Maxwell
Co-commissioned by The Opera Group and ROH2
Co-produced by The Opera Group and Opera North in association with ROH2 and Watford Palace Theatre
Orchestral partner – CHROMA