Classical review: The Firework Maker's Daughter - Brace yourself for an explosive yarn

Add magnesium to strontium, and prepare yourself for fireworks

Anna Picard
Saturday 30 March 2013 19:02
China girl: Mary Bevan (Lila) in Hull Truck’s The Firework Maker’s Daughter
China girl: Mary Bevan (Lila) in Hull Truck’s The Firework Maker’s Daughter

Parents and carers beware! Lila, fearless heroine of David Bruce and Glyn Maxwell's adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Firework Maker's Daughter, is a thoroughly disruptive influence. If the children who saw John Fulljames's show in Hull and Huddersfield last week aren't dreaming of becoming the world's greatest pyrotechnicians, they are probably dreaming of careers as singers, puppeteers, percussionists, composers or writers. Co-produced by Opera North, The Opera Group, ROH2 and the Palace Theatre, Watford, The Firework Maker's Daughter tells a terrific story and makes the crazy, sweaty, risky business of telling that story for a living look like terrific fun.

Feisty and filthy in equal measure, Mary Bevan's sweet-toned Lila is a heroine to melt hearts. Born with the smell of gunpowder in her nose, she wants nothing more than to find the perfect cocktail of strontium and magnesium "to make the night explode". Her father, Lalchand (Wyn Pencarreg), has other plans: he wants Lila to get married. So she runs away, encountering a tiger, pirates and ghosts, and undergoing trials by fire and water in her quest for the secret gifts of firework-making before she is rescued by her friends Chulak (Amar Muchhala) and Hamlet, the lovesick white elephant (James Laing). Back at home, somewhere "east of the jungle and south of the mountains", Lalchand is about to be "put to death in the nicest possible way", unless he and Lila can concoct the greatest firework display the world has ever seen.

In this huge-hearted, fast-moving caper there is shadow-puppetry, stilt-walking, mild peril, cardboard fish and a cardboard boat (designs by Dick Bird, puppets by Steve Tiplady and Sally Todd). The pyrotechnics come from magic markers, oil and water, craftbox glitter and two overhead projectors; the enchantment from the energy of the performers, the ingenuity of Guy Hoare's lighting, and the beauty of Bruce's music. Scored for a small band including accordion, harp and an array of gamelan-like percussion, the opera plunders the soundworlds of India, China and Indonesia. The patina is sharp, sweet and metallic, the rhythms punchy, the melodies fluid and expressive.

As Hamlet the elephant laments his lost love, Frangipane, Laing's counter-tenor melismas dovetail into the elephantine fanfare of the French horn. The pirates, skeletons, Moon Goddess and shambolic pirate/cook/MC Rambashi (Andrew Slater) have signature sonorities and styles: a pungent shanty or a glassy violin solo. The two-headed fire-fiend Razvani makes a double-nod in the direction of Rameau. When Lila and Lalchand compete with the rival firework makers Scorcini and Puffenflasch, Bruce conjures a Neapolitan wedding band and klezmer-inflected Valkyries. Even if the target audience for this show is only a fraction older than the babies born in Bruce's 2006 opera Push!, there is enough to seduce the most musically discerning parent. Just don't take your offspring if you want them to take up a career in accountancy.

At Kings Place, London, the year-long festival Bach Unwrapped (****)turned its focus to the Fourth and Fifth Brandenburg Concertos and a brace of intimately scored cantatas, Komm, du süsse Todesstunde and Es ist das Heil uns kommen her. Directed from the harpsichord by John Butt, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought a hint of coffee-shop banter to the first and a touch of reverence to the second. So clear is the Kings Place acoustic that every felicity registered, from the crisply paired quavers of the two treble recorders in the Andante of the Fourth Concerto (Rachel Beckett and Catherine Latham) to the flattements – the subtle fluctuations of pitch – applied by flautist Lisa Beznosiuk in the Fifth. Tenor Stuart Jackson, bass George Humphreys, soprano Anna Dennis, and counter-tenor Tim Mead made a radiant quartet, Mead spellbinding in the opening aria of the first cantata and the duet with Dennis in the second (really a trio with Anthony Robson's oboe d'amore), Jackson a talent of extraordinary potential.

'The Firework Maker's Daughter', Linbury Studio, London WC2 (020-7304 4000) 3-13 Apr, then touring to 1 Jun; the Bach Unwrapped season continues 18 Apr (020-7520 1490)

Critic's Choice

Sir John Eliot Gardiner presides over a nine-hour marathon of cantatas, motets, suites, organ works and partitas by Bach with the Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Joanna MacGregor, Viktoria Mullova, John Butt and Alban Gerhardt, culminating in a performance of the B Minor Mass at the Royal Albert Hall, London (Mon). Harry Fehr's Scottish Opera production of The Flying Dutchman opens at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow (Thu).

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