Flight by Jonathan Dove

Students of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Sherman Cymru, 20-22 June 2013

 

 

For those of us at risk of indigestion from the rich menus of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition this year, there was a palate-cleanser on offer from opera students at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. While the halls of their College were commandeered for the Cardiff Singer, the students were working in Sherman Cymru, and it’s a great shame that more of the Cardiff Singer audience members did not cross the railway tracks to see the stunning production of Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight that the RWCMD produced there.

Since its first performance by Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1998, Flight has been performed in other parts of Europe, the US and Australia, but deserves to be heard much more often than it is. All credit to the RWCMD for putting it on. It offers singers an opportunity to show what they can do both as soloists and in ensemble. All of the ten-strong cast (with the possible exception of the Immigration Officer, who, while he has a vital role, is not on stage for long) have significant roles for which they need to create strong, clearly-delineated characters, and these performers certainly demonstrated their acting as well as their singing skills to the full. The work also suits young performers. The young Australian mezzo Amanda Wagg did not ‘age up’ to become the Older Woman, but was still completely believable in that role.

Often described as a comic opera, Flight certainly contains a lot of humour, turning sometimes to slapstick, but has a serious side too. The constant presence on stage of the Refugee is a reminder of that.  The English dramatist April De Angelis drew upon a real-life story of a refugee living in an airport in creating her libretto, and this is not such a far-fetched story – indeed, the US intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden is living in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport as I write. Using such a character sets up a pivot for the dramas of the other characters. All are in transit, all thrown up against their hopes and fears as they wait for the planes which will take them to places where life may or may not be different.

The idioms of Jonathan Dove’s sparky music and April De Angelis’ text match most pleasingly. Lines delivered by the assorted travellers to the Refugee such as:

Although we sympathise with your condition,
We’re on holiday, not a mission.

are fresh, not clichéd, while the pregnant Minskwoman’s lines about the contents of her bag:

Nappies and nipple cream,
Powdered milk and Vaseline

are not the least bit embarrassing, as they might have been in less skilled hands.

All credit to the writers and singer alike that the words came across beautifully clearly, for the most part. The exception was in the role of the Controller, set high in the soprano range. It is nigh on impossible for any soprano to make all words audible when singing at the top of their range, and I mean no criticism to Irish soprano Aoife O’Connell, who did well in a very challenging role.

In a strong cast, counter-tenor Joe Bolger as the Refugee and mezzo Dawn Burns as Minskwoman stood out for me as young singers to watch.  Credit as well to Designer Amy Hudson, who created a set of clean lines which served the work but never got in the way of the action. The departure and arrival of two planes was done utterly convincingly, as was the delivery of Minskwoman’s baby on stage. Of course, Director Martin Constantine must also take some of the credit for this.

Joanathan Dove had provided a (presumably cut-down) new orchestration of his work for the RWCMD Chamber Orchestra for this production. The music was by turns sparkling and luscious, and at times had a stark beauty, especially in the Refugee’s explanation of his plight near the end of the opera. As a whole it had something of the character of what appeals to me about Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress. Sometimes interjections reminded me of Baba the Turk, stuck in her carriage as Tom Rakewell and Anne Truelove sing a lyrical duet. Different place, different time, but the same energy and same unashamed use of music that speaks easily to an audience.

Flight has received many plaudits for its accessibility in the often alienating world of contemporary opera, and quite rightly on the strength of this production. It was a joy to see and hear, and judging by the expressions on the faces of the cast at the end of the show, a joy for them to perform as well.