Glasgow Theatre Royal
17th February 2017
It was time for the first opera of the year. The long winter is almost over, the nights are getting vaguely lighter, & of course the snowdrop metropoli are in abundance wherever there are fallen leaves to nourish them. The wife & I drove the hour & a tiny bit from East Lothian to Glasgow, a pleasant run, now the East End of Glasgow’s motorway system has been neatened up. It was time for the first opera of the year, the bafflingly brilliant Flight, returning to Scotland for the first time since its 2006 showing at the New Athenaeum Theatre.
The creation of composer Jonathon Dove & librettist, April de Angelis, Flight is a multi-paced, multi-voiced symphonica, all played out in a single setting. This, of all places, is an airport’s waiting lounge, which of course offers fantastic potential for intensity of emotion & the almost infinite possibilities for vignettean dramas. Here, the expectancy of travel within the tens of minutes has the capacity to intensify life a thousandfold. I awaited the potential slivers of society cooked up by Dove & de Angelis with interest.
Summoned to our seats by a mock airport tannoy, I found myself in the bosom of TriStar Airlines, watching stellar-voiced James Laing’s shabbily dressed, documentless fellow roll straight out of Tom Hanks’s Immigrant. Both the Hollywood & the operatic avatars were inspired by the same man, Mehran Karimi Nasseri (aka Sir Alfred Mehran), who lived in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport between 1988 & 2006. On stage, right from the start, the operatic version forms a figure much like a quasi-mystical beggar-king, charming his way into the hearts & purses of all the female protagonists. These include a stewardess & three travelers, all four of whom have male interests in one form or the other. The stewardess (Sioned Gwen Davies) has hers right beside her, a fellow steward (Dingle Yandell) with whom she carries on an extremely raunchy affair. This bursts out into vivid, pornographic life in the elevator, & for which reason only the most liberal of parents should think about bringing their school-age kids along. The other three women are passengers; the woman of a certain age waiting for her young Spanish lover (Marie McLaughlin); the pregnant diplomat’s wife who chickens out on the big move to Minsk (Victoria Simmonds); & effervescent Stephanie Corley’s Tina, who provides much of the comedy alongside her husband side-kick & foil, played by the always excellent Peter Auty.
There is one more female voice, former Scottish Opera emerging Artist, soprano Jennifer France. She plays the Controller, who stands on a lofty perch above the stage, flicking out her supreme vocal talents over the tannoy like the wafts of a peacock’s tail. She really does hit the highest notes hearable to the human ear, & rather sweetly too. ‘This is the best time… just the thrum of air rushing along pipes,’ she sings at the commencement, a phantom-like figure who watches proceedings like the gods at Troy, while commenting on them at the same time in the classical rhapsodic fashion. As Flight progresses, she carries on some kind of weird relationship with Laing. ‘I like him to stare at me & adore me,’ she sings. I’m not quite sure why; it doesn’t really effect the opera at all – its all rather dreamlike – but the theme is there & could perhaps have been given a little extra beef in thee plot.
Musically, that ‘radically accessible… style’ described by David Kettle, like many of the emerging works of artists of leisurely longevity, Dove’s first opera could well be his best. Commissioned by Glyndebourne in 1998, & soaring supersonical across the world ever since, I especially liked the explosive & euphorical lasar-intense flourishes, such as when Bill & Tina, remembering their early passions, dueted, ‘the whole world disappeared except you.’ The music & the lyrics just work so well together, testament to Dove’s meeting with de Angelis at a hothouse opera-writing course at an early, burgeoning stage of both their careers. Occasionally, de Angelis fails like so many others in the English libretto’s fight against the cynghanedd-lacking, rhyme-constricting fibers of its language. ‘Sending planes up in the sky, & then they fly,’ ‘its not my fault, I live in a vault,’ are two examples.
My favorite musical moment was when the entire ensemble gazed towards the audience, transforming us into the runway, at which their vocals whoooo’d at the rush-soaring take-off of one of those, ‘pure clean immaculate machines,’ perfectly complemented by Scottish Opera’s scratch-perfect orchestra.
Fierce night, jagged light, pining wind, pinning us to the ground…
After the first act, a very Caledonian electric storm bursts onto the backdrop, grounding the cast for the next two acts in which the traditional raison d’etre of opera – to entertain, to provoke emotions & to inspire subconscious philosophizing – shall be played out. ‘The airport & the storm,’ de Angelis told the Mumble, ‘are like a forest that people go into, a place where transformations happen. All the characters are hoping for a new life in some ways.’ The second acts begins upon a plateaux of pathos, when minds are made to wander in the dark; a little lackluster at first, but it soon picks up & all hell breaks loose in a typical liberal pre-9-11 Airport where craziness was expected – but not encouraged – & allowed.
There’s nobody in the story whose making a short-haul, insignificant flight. An airport represents people’s dreams & hopes. You’re going there hoping for something – maybe a holiday, maybe a whole new life. Jonathan Dove
The hub-hub of an airport is perfectly suited to a traditional operatic ensemble, & the debuting SO director, Australian Stephen Barlow did a smart job of filling the physical spaces. Behind them, Andrew Riley’s set was simple yet authentic, something which the wife took a great deal of pleasure from – tho’ not so much how the opera played out in the end. After a smashing first act she thought it got a bit silly, but opera – especially one with comic pretensions – is sometimes supposed to be silly. The problem is, the modern brain is trained to place comic opera in an Italian setting at least, preferably several hundred years ago, which Flight clearly cannot. But for me, the archetypes were excellent; swap the stewards for Catholic priests, the holidaying couple for a squabbling count & contessa & we’re off… its all really rather the same. Flight could well polarize the opera lover, but if one puts one’s expectations into a tall ice-fill’d glass, along with a generous helping of pina colada, beside some exotic pool – then its all quite enjoyable, fun, & ultimately musically inspiring.
Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen
Flight will be touching down…
Glasgow’s Theatre Royal = February 17.21.24
Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre = March 01.03