Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

Sometimes Life does seem to imitate Art. Jonathan Dove’s Flight (commissioned by Glyndebourne and premiered in 1998) may be based on real events, in centring on the case of the unnamed Refugee, stranded in the no-man’s-land of an airport for want of anywhere else to settle down in safety. But circumstances in 2022 have conspired to make the setting and theme of this work particularly apt now, with organisational chaos at British airports repeatedly making headline news, and the Government’s brazen attempt to fly asylum seekers away from the country to Rwanda. (One might also add that such a topically relevant and accessible opera gives the lie to the inane accusations of elitism about opera-going by the philistine Dominic Raab against members of the Opposition front bench.) For many of us, airports are surely banal, even hellishly impersonal and arid environments, serving nothing more than a purely utilitarian purpose. But the success of Dove’s opera suggests that at least the idea of an airport – as a place of arrivals and departures, the means of escaping from unwanted times or places (or acting as the barrier to that), a setting for chance encounters – is a potent one: all the more so as, paradoxically, it is the Refugee – without any home or much history that we come to know about – who constitutes the dramatic centre, around whom the other characters coalesce and come to terms with their anxieties or niggles.

Jeremy Sams’s production resolutely recreates the indeterminate, empty atmosphere of a British airport in the present day, with departure boards accurately rendered. Significant differences in culture, age or background also appear to be deliberately muted such that the Older Woman (aged fifty-five according to the libretto) and the Minksman and Minkswoman are attired in much the same fashion as everyone else, and so in their various ways each character apparently represents contemporary Everyman. The one concession to what already now seems like the different world of the late 1990s is that no mobile phones or other electronic devices are brandished, nor are body-scanners in evidence. An ensemble of extras – including a group of pink bunny girls in one scene (presumably on their way to a hen party) – reminds us that the age of mass tourism is fully underway.

In an opera where the text is mostly declaimed in tersely rhyming phrases rather than sustained melody, the cast of singers attain a creditable array of musical characterisations. Above all, Hugh Cutting exudes a puckish, ethereal cheerfulness in the countertenor role of the Refugee as he socialises with the various passengers in his midst, until near the end when he explains something of his background, Cutting achieves a rare and disturbing power in his singing that remains lithe but urgent. As the Controller – physically set above the action for much of the time, in her lookout tower – Heming Li floats a light but incisive line with the suppleness of what could be described as a soubrette were the character not so cold-hearted. It is left to Annabel Kennedy to project a more typically robust coloratura as the Minskwoman in both the set-piece given to her, that is scored as a parody of a formal aria, and the scene in which she gives birth.

If Richard Strauss proudly declared that he could depict anything, even a teaspoon, in sound, one wonders if he ever imagined that labour pains could be set to music, as here. He did, however, evoke sexual intercourse at the opening of Der Rosenkavalier, and Dove whips up an equally steamy torrent of lust for the Steward, who twice has his pleasure during the drama, taken with eloquent matter-of-factness by Edward Jowle. By comparison, Matthew Curtis and Lylis O’Hara are a more bashful Bill and Tina (the former discovering his bisexuality in an encounter with the Steward) in petulantly bemoaning their weariness and frustrations as they prepare to go on holiday (delayed by thunderstorms – if not a shortage of staff or flights). Lexie Moon conveys a sense of the Older Woman’s forlorn maturity as she awaits her much younger fiancé with increasing hopelessness, whilst Phoebe Rayner’s Stewardess entertains the Steward’s heterosexual urgings with quiet sprightliness.

Michael Rosewell and the RCM Orchestra evince wonderful alacrity and energy in this colourful, eventful score, maintaining a well-driven pace throughout which also keeps the stage action on its toes. The pared-down orchestra (one to a part, except for pairs of horns and trumpets) lack nothing in vigour and weight, as they even occasionally obscure the clarity of the voices, especially in the already choked dialogue of the ensembles. But the tightness of their playing ensures pointilliste exactness in the welter of sonorities from the instruments, that perhaps at times also recalls a Straussian orchestral virtuosity in principle, but in more immediate effect marries Britten’s ability to evoke atmosphere through timbre (if not necessarily specific musical themes) with the motoric rhythms of American minimalism (but again without the obsessive repetition or development of motifs).

Flight has achieved the status of a modern operatic classic – and an essentially comic one at that – and this alert performance ably vindicates that.

Further performances on July 2 & 4 with alternate casts

Jonathan Dove

Flight – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by April de Angelis [sung in English with English surtitles]

Refugee – Hugh Cutting

Controller – Heming Li

Bill – Matthew Curtis

Tina – Lylis O’Hara

Stewardess – Phoebe Rayner

Older Woman – Lexie Moon

Steward – Edward Jowle

Minskman – Theo Perry

Minskwoman – Annabel Kennedy

Immigration Officer – Jamie Woollard

Royal College of Music Orchestra

Michael Rosewell

Jeremy Sams – Director

Nicky Shaw – Designer

James Whiteside – Lighting Designer

Matt Powell – Video Designer

Alyssa Noble – Choreographer