Jonathan Dove’s Flight, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1998, is one of the most popular and frequently performed operas of recent years. In spite of this, Stephen Barlow’s new production at Opera Holland Park represents the first time that the piece has ever been staged professionally in London. Set in an airport, it focuses on a selection of passengers who are all ready to embark on their various trips. Each has a different reason for their journey, but all are forced into some serious soul searching when an electrical storm leaves them grounded overnight.
Against this backdrop there is an Air Controller who, stationed high above the crowds, has little time for the people who scurry beneath. At the opposite end of the spectrum a Refugee, trapped at the airport because he has no papers, represents the lowest of the low and enjoys an intriguing relationship with the Controller as they sing to each other from their respective stage levels. The misanthropic Controller treats him with disdain, and yet proves possessive when it appears he is seeking help from anyone other than her. At the same time, her high soprano and his countertenor mark both characters out as semi-ethereal presences who stand in contrast to the glut of passengers.
Although it is not minimalist, Dove’s score, superbly conducted by Brad Cohen, reveals the influence of John Adams and, to a lesser extent, Philip Glass. At the same time, in terms of tone, sound and sentiment much of the music would seem to owe a great debt to Britten, while there are just a few nods to Wagner and several more to Richard Strauss. In other respects, however, this is a totally modern score as there are not many operas whose music must represent the sound that heralds the arrival of a lift, or the rhythm of contractions as a woman gives birth.
The staging is generally successful and it seems as if Barlow studied the original Glyndebourne production to work out how even that could be improved on. This is all to the good because, no matter how accomplished Richard Jones’ version was, there were a few weaknesses. Any set that sees a control tower stand feet above a departure lounge so that the Controller can converse with those on ground level was never intended to be entirely realistic. It still felt jarring, however, to witness an airport where only ten people were ever seen, where the check-in and departure lounge seemed meshed into one, and where people appeared to be able to run on and off planes in a second.
Opera Holland Park overcomes at least some of these problems. The broad stage is exploited to present a more literal image of a departure lounge with three lifts (as opposed to one at Glyndebourne) hinting at the scale and mass of activity. Most importantly, actors are employed to ensure that other passengers do appear, thus bringing a sense of dynamism and realism to the proceedings. They are frequently ‘recycled’ so that they queue to board one plane, represent the arrivals on another flight, and then emerge from the lifts once more, but they do behave as people really might in such a scenario. For example, when one soloist sings of her plight two passengers scuttle to different seats as they clearly want to be out of the way of this person letting rip. When another couple share in a moment of joy, a few people smile from afar as might happen in real life.
Atmosphere is also generated by having the invitations for the audience to take their seats delivered in the style of an airport tannoy announcement. The normal references to tickets and auditorium are replaced by boarding passes and departure lounge, while everyone is given a different reason to usual why it is so important to turn off their mobile phone. In spite of this, not everything works perfectly. April De Angelis’ libretto features many jokes contained in short, snappy lines and the impact of these can be ruined by reading them before they are delivered. Especially since enunciation is so strong, each surtitle needs to be revealed one second after the line is delivered so that it acts as a back-up, rather than five seconds before when it becomes a spoiler. Some of the libretto relies on perfect timing as lines are piled one on top of the other. This is not always achieved when the broad stage means that some consecutive utterances come from quite different locations. In addition, despite staging Act II as late as possible by putting the evening’s interval before, instead of after, it, it is still just a little too light outside to make it really feel like the dead of night in an airport.
The cast is generally strong although some display weaknesses in the slants that they place on their characters. As the Controller Jennifer France lacks the underlying hardness to enable the figure to come across as overwhelmingly assertive. Nevertheless, although this is important because we need to see the contrast as she subsequently shows her own vulnerabilities, France reveals an excellent soprano instrument and her top lines feel brilliantly metallic and piercing. Ellie Laugharne pitches her performance as Tina, the wife in the couple trying to spice up their marriage, very well, but Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts as her other half is less successful. He sings well, but presents Bill as a man who has lost interest in their relationship as he has got older, as opposed to someone who has always possessed the ‘boring gene’. Bill’s actions in Act II stretch credulity at the best of times, but with the character played as he is they fail to resonate.
George von Bergen and Kitty Whately are good value as the randy Steward and Stewardess, while Lucy Schaufer sensitively portrays the Older Woman. Victoria Simmonds as the so-called Minskwoman (she was intending to fly there) makes the aria in which she reflects on her life and contemplates motherhood highly moving, while Nicholas Garrett and John Savournin are effective in the small roles of the Minskman and Immigration Officer. It is nonetheless James Laing, recently seen as Nerillus in L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, who steals the night as the Refugee. It is not easy for a countertenor voice to fill such a large tented area, but Laing does so with sensitivity and notable clarity, and his acting proves highly engaging.
Opera Holland Park’s 2015 season continues until 1 August. For full details of all six productions visit the Opera Holland Park website.