Thursday 4 April 2013

Making musical fireworks - The Opera Group at the Linbury Theatre

The Firework-maker's Daughter - Mary Bevan as Lila,  The Opera Group/Opera North, Picture credit Robert Workman
Mary Bevan as Lila
Picture credit Robert Workman
The Opera Group's latest production, 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). The performance was heavy with collaboration, the opera was a co-commission from The Opera Group and ROH2, it was co produced by The Opera Group and Opera North in association with ROH2 and Watford Palace Theatre. The instrumental ensemble was Chroma, and the director was John Fulljames, former artistic director of The Opera Group and now Assistant Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House. That's a lot of people to keep happy, you almost felt that there were more producers than performers (just five singers, two puppeteers and nine musicians, plus conductor), but then that's modern opera production for you. The weight of expectation would also lay heavy on the audience, as the opera is aimed at children and based on the book by beloved author Philip Pullman. Wednesday nights audience (a packed one) at the Linbury Theatre included plenty of children, and they provided an enthusiastic response so the event must be deemed a success. What of the opera?

Composer David Bruce (whose previous operatic experience includes works for Tête à Tête) 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 search of the mystical Royal Sulphur to help her make fireworks, because her father won't teach her how to. 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.

James Fulljames and designer Dick Bird along with the puppeteers Steve Tiplady and Sally Todd, from Indefinite Articles, have 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 variety of effects, notably combining projection with shadow puppetry, but also notably involving the live cast in the shadow projection. The story culminates in a firework display competition, which is 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 a white elephant 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.

And what of the music?

Well, Bruce's nine-person instrumental ensemble included an interesting mix of instruments (violin, bass, flute, clarinet, horn, accordion, harp and two percussionists), 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/dialogue, this seemed to noodle 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. (I known from experience of my own operas that it is all too easy to noodle along in dialogue. I suspect that all opera composers should be made to study Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande and the throne room scene from Handel's Tamerlano, the longest single piece of recitative he wrote).

For me, the piece 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. Here the music seemed content to take a back seat, and I think that this was a mistake. I felt that the production was so strong, so brilliant, that it could quite easily have taken a rather edgier, more complex score. 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. I think, that there was too much concern to be easy and accessible.

The performance was superb, dramatically and vocally. Mary Bevan was pure treasure as Lila, and in her solos sang Bruce's grateful lines with a lovely tone and purity. She was ably supported by the hard-working cast, not all got their musical moments but  James Laing was delightful as the love-sick Elephant. Occasionally the diction left something to be desired, and I suspect that younger children would need to know the plot in advance.

Equally hard-working were the nine instrumentalists of Chroma, ably conducted by Geoffrey Patterson who kept everything flowing nicely whilst fireworks were erupting round him.

Watching the opera, I kept coming back to the feeling that our long list of producers had wanted to repeat the success of The Opera Group's production of Jonathan Dove's The Enchanted Pig, which was brilliantly magical in its own quirky way. This production seemed to fatally want to plough just the same furrow. I have seen Bruce's work with Tête à Tête 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.

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.

The opera is on tour until 1 June visiting New York, Watford, Bury St. Edmunds, Buxton, Oxford and Newcastle, see The Opera Group's website for further details.

A full review will be appearing on the website.

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