Appropriate then that a small audience is what you’ll find at the Playhouse tonight for the final night of the Opera Group’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter. Small, numerous and remarkably well behaved for a horde of children at what is a proper opera – no finger-clicking romance, revolutionary child adoption or Mormon pilgrimages here. Come prepared for actual arias, a delightful counter-tenor, big beefy baritones and some remarkable shadow puppetry.The shadow puppetry, like the whole affair, gets off to a rocky start – depending on where you’re sitting the first puppet or two can be hard to pick up, and a little muddled. The same can be said for the libretto, but thankfully only in the initial scenes where Glyn Maxwell has the unenviable job of trying to set a fairly complex scene in such a way that kids will follow, when sung in operatic fashion. It comes off a tad clunky early on, but builds steadily from there, once the characters can stop telling you who they are and actually get on with being who they are, and the shadow puppets stop being dinky props and start being funny, menacing, invaluable parts of the stage.
The three main characters, who you might call ‘the kids’ of Mary Bevan as Lila, the titular daughter, James Laing as Hamlet, the lovelorn and not at all metaphorical White Elephant, and Amar Muchhala as Chulak, Hamlet's Scrubber and Lila’s best friend, go off without a hitch. It’s a rare treat to have a counter-tenor playing a lovesick elephant, and alongside Chulak and Lila’s mischievous scamperings, the friendship between these three forms the warm heart of the story. The heroes of the piece for me were Wyn Pencarreg and Andrew Slater, who are down as playing Lila’s father Lalchand (Firework-Maker) and Chulak’s uncle Rambashi respectively, but cover far more ground than that. In doing so they take what could be just a children’s story about kids, for kids, and make it a funny, heartwarming and tiny bit scary coming-of-age tale that works for adults as well.The company, with special mention to the shadow-puppeteers and orchestra who were also on fine form, all look to be having a fantastic time making a really enjoyable, accessible and well executed opera. If you’ve been looking for an opera to take your kids to – and even if you haven’t, – this is the one for you.