Sunday, May 5, 2013

Nights like these: Firework-Maker's Daughter

Joy of discovery: Bevan and Pencarreg
in The Firework-Maker's Daughter
The Firework-Maker's Daughter, an opera composed by David Bruce with a libretto by Glyn Maxwell, has its U.S. premiere run at The New Victory Theater, which is dedicated to works designed for children. Its inventive staging, engaging musical writing, and charming plot, however, won me--as well as the many children in the audience--over completely. The outlines of its fairy-tale narrative are simple enough, but it plays with those genre traditions, as well as with operatic convention, to craft a work that is anything but superficial or facile. Edward Said might have been thrown into fits by the description of the story's setting ("an imaginary land that brings to mind India, Thailand, China, Indonesia, or some combination of all and none of those places") but I can't imagine the opera itself failing to delight. The Opera Group, which gave the work its world premiere earlier this year, has imported the production and cast, and the cohesive, creative ensemble spirit contributed much to the joy of the evening. You'll have to bear with me, Gentle Readers, as I keep using words like joy and delight in describing this work that features Wagnerian allusions and a lovesick white elephant, as well as the independent heroine of the title.

Unfamiliar with Philip Pullman's novel from which the opera takes its plot, I was charmed by the story as presented. In John Fulljames' production, punctuated by vigorous (vaguely Indonesian) dances and enriched by projections and puppetry alternately humorous and beautiful (thanks to Indefinite Articles), Lila pursues her dreams of independence, while her friend Chulak puts his on hold to help her. (And, to my gratification, they did not end up romantically paired off, despite being a soprano and a tenor.) The score is lean but evocative, relying heavily on percussion and woodwinds, with strings coming to the fore in moments of emotional intimacy or vulnerability. The Metropolis Ensemble, under the baton of Andrew Cyr, performed with admirable energy and precision.

Each of the singers performed with admirable dramatic commitment and vocal panache. Andrew Slater took the buffo role of Rambashi, a Kipling-esque character, uncle to Chulak and perennially hapless entrepreneur on the economic margins. His most poignant and exciting singing, I thought, came as a pirate-turned-restaurateur (it's a long story) but Slater was also effective in the distinctly characterized Elephant Keeper, as gruff as he was foolish, and the tyrannical Emperor, who is perhaps a less enlightened cousin of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado. Lalchand, the master firework-maker, was sung with elegant phrasing and plangent tone by baritone Wyn Pencarreg; I grew misty-eyed over his clear tenderness for his daughter, and more so as this tenderness warred with his defensive desire that she find a future with a husband, and not among the chemicals of his workshop. In a beautiful aria at the opening of the piece, Lalchand wonders aloud what his daughter's first words will be: "Daddy, fire?" ("Teach me! Teach me!" answers the piping soprano.) More free and more happy than Wotan, Lalchand is united and reconciled with his daughter after their separate and shared trials. Amar Muchhala brought charm and humor, as well a warm, muscular tenor, to the role of Chulak, the sly elephant keeper whose loyalty to Lila takes him far from both duty and desire. The pining Hamlet was sung by countertenor James Laing with consistent beauty of tone. (Hamlet is the elephant; his words are intelligible only to the kindhearted.) Laing also achieved remarkable emotional expression with an elephant-head puppet. Many of Hamlet's words are merely long, challenging melismas of lament or reproach, doubt or encouragement; that I was left with the impression of a fully-realized character is tribute to Laing's achievement. (His ladylove's oft-sung, mellifluous name is Frangipani. The elephants are blissfully united at the end, thanks to Hamlet's resourcefulness and wit.) Mary Bevan, in the title role, gave an engaging and energetic performance, convincingly portraying Lila's journey from youthful confidence, through doubt, to mature resolution. Her focused sound and incisive diction made her light lyric instrument unexpectedly and appropriately weapon-like when required, but she used it well to express tenderness, as well as her early frustration and hardening resolve. The Wagnerian pretensions and Italian bombast (both orchestrally expressed) of the rival firework-makers were seen off in a deeply satisfying fashion, as Lila sings her art into being. Like all the best fables, The Firework-Maker's Daughter left me exhilarated as well as entranced. 

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