This week the Linbury Studio Theatre attracted an audience of the more minute variety with its dazzling production of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter. Based on Philip Pullman’s novel, the two-act opera transported its listeners into the realms of the Far East with papery costumes, Indonesian shadow puppetry and hand-crafted pyrotechnics. Co-produced by The Opera Group and Opera North, directed by John Fulljames, played by CHROMA ensemble and conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, the project was a timely continuation of a string of Pullman-inspired dramatisations that have included the acclaimed staging of His Dark Materials at the National Theatre (2003) and the film adaptation of Northern Lights under its American title The Golden Compass (2007). With music composed by David Bruce and a libretto constructed by Glyn Maxwell, the narrative enjoyed a vivid dramatisation that was brimming with energy.

Of his novel, Pullman remarked “I always loved the names they give fireworks – ‘Incandescent Fountain’, ‘Golden Vesuvius’ and so on – and I began by making up a story that could have a lot of firework names in it”. Pullman’s story takes place in an exotic world of mountains, jungles and elephants. The heroine is Lila, the firework-maker’s daughter, who is determined to enter the family profession and create phenomenal explosions. Her father, however, has other ideas and encourages her to contemplate marriage as a more befitting enterprise. Her attempts to acquire more knowledge lead her on a journey to the volcanic Mount Merapi where she tries to claim Royal Sulphur – the necessary ingredient for exceptional blasts. Lila’s friends – Hamlet, the King’s white elephant, and Chulak, the elephant scrubber – follow in a desperate attempt to save her from danger.

Bruce’s score comprised an eloquent interweaving of gamelan patterns, rustic folk melodies and pentatonic flourishes. The ensemble of varied instruments, including harp, accordion and percussion, was bound to attract younger ears and eyes. Yet the token “Eastern” tunes were cleverly interspersed with curious extended techniques and deft “Mickey Mousing” of the singers’ material. String harmonics coupled with metallic effects and militant marches on the piccolo made for a diverse palette of timbres that was further enhanced by playful additions of glockenspiel and xylophone. James Laing’s performance as Hamlet capitalised on the humour of Bruce’s elaborate Purcellian melismas, while pining for his elephant love Frangipane who is stuck in the zoo. Mary Bevan also delivered Lila’s endearingly carefree voice to perfection, while Amar Muchhala won the audience over with his well-meaning yet blundering Chulak.

When Lila reaches the mountain and appeals to the fire-fiend Razvani for the Royal Sulphur, she is refused on account of not possessing the mysterious “three gifts”. Just as she is due to be cast into the flames, Chulak and Hamlet appear with the Enchanted Water from the Goddess of the Emerald Lake. This allows Lila to persist through the flames unscathed, but there is no Royal Sulphur awaiting her. Instead the Echoes of the cave deliver the message that her father, the firework-maker, has been arrested for treason on suspicion of stealing the King’s elephant. After returning to the King’s palace and pleading with the King, Hamlet is able to strike a deal with him: the firework-maker may go free if he can win the top prize in a firework competition open to all the pyrotechnicians of the land.

The real alchemists in this production were Indefinite Articles – the group behind the direction of puppetry. Using an understated ensemble of overhead projectors, marker pens, troughs of water and free-falling sand, the crew were able to simulate extraordinary illusions of firework displays on a white screen. We watched colours skyrocketing and mushrooming as grains were sprinkled across glass turntables and marbled water ruffled with brushes. In addition to this, shadow puppetry was used to enact the narrative on a different plane. The singers wore skeleton profiles upon there heads while moving behind the screen to produce the exaggerated characteristics of each persona. This was particularly effective in the jailing sequence, where black bars were slid across the screened panels containing the characters. To watch these vignettes brought to life with such minimal resources was a thrilling experience and enlivened the imagination of both the children and adults present at this performance.

Lila and her father succeed in winning the firework competition. Her father reveals to her that the notion of the “three gifts” was a misnomer – the Royal Sulphur never existed and the gifts were simply qualities that she had all along. Closing on this positive note, the voice of Lila retreated into the darkness to rapturous applause. The Linbury Studio was brimming with Pullman experts of all ages who clearly responded to this production. One young boy did remark rather pointedly that there was “too much glockenspiel”. However, this was certainly an artistic collaboration that deserved to be celebrated.