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09 Mar 2006
For most of its 40 plus years the Adelaide Festival of Arts has had as its central attraction the Australian premieres of a landmark European opera like Wozzeck, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Fiery Angel or landmark contemporary works like Death in Venice, Nixon in China or El Nino presented within a few years of their world premieres.
2006 saw the local premiere of a contemporary work that has, in the few years since its premiere, achieved the same degree of success as the Britten or Adams' works, Jonathan Dove’s three act opera Flight. Originally performed at Glyndebourne in 1998, Flight has been produced in The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, twice in the USA and subsequently revived at Glyndebourne in 2005. The Adelaide performances feature the Glyndebourne production directed by Geoffrey Dolton recreating Richard Jones’ original direction.
The original idea for Flight came from the true-life report of Mehran Nasseri, who lived for eleven months within the Charles de Gaulle Airport, the same story that inspired the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal. Set in an airport terminal, Flight concerns two couples, a stateless and passportless refugee, two flight attendants and an older woman. One couple, Bill and Tina are about to re-kindle their flagging marriage with a second honeymoon and self-help book. The other couple is a diplomat and his pregnant wife who suddenly refuses to leave with him. The older woman, Sandra, is waiting for her latest fiancée to arrive, this one she met at a bar in Cabrera. A storm halts all flights and all are now stranded for the night. The proceedings are watched over and commented on by the Flight Controller from her observation tower. While the Refugee begs small change from the passengers, the women get drunk, the habitually promiscuous flight attendants have quickies in the elevator and later the male attendant seduces the equally promiscuous Bill.
Much has been said of the easy accessibility of Dove's score. Experiencing the opera in performance reveals a blending the dramatic possibilities of opera seria with popular music styles. Dove, for instance, describes the very ordinary departure lounge chatter like the holiday plans of the very ordinary Bill and Tina in jaunty Rhumba rhythms not unlike the Leonard Bernstein of Wonderful Town. The similarities between Flight and a top-drawer musical composer like Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim are apt.
In a recent interview the conductor of the Adelaide performances, Brad Cohen referred to Dove's compositional style at the time as “evolving” and that “it just seems right.” Dove’s sound world does have an instinctive feel and sounds like a melting pot of musical styles assembled with the same seeming ease Sondheim blended the fairy tale music of Tchaikovsky and Ravel with his own orchestral palette in Into the Woods or a good film composer transfers symphonic thought into visual support. Later he can refer to encroaching storms in a style not unlike the build up to the storm in Britten’s Peter Grimes. None of this is pastiche, however, just a couple of hours of constantly and refreshingly varied music. In purely orchestral passages the depictions of jets taking off and landing do in orchestral terms for aircraft what Honegger’s Pacific 231 did for steam trains. Dove, in fact, has recently drawn an orchestral suite from Flight called “Airport Scenes” which might well take its place along side Honegger's famous opus.
In the Festival theatre, the variety of the music was given full head by Cohen and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
Not surprisingly for an Englishman Dove's word setting descends from Britten, particularly Britten's break with the older English preference for one note per syllable so that the high voices especially have exuberant melismas that take ‘flight’ as often as any of the aircraft in the opera. The opera's only really dramatic character, the Refugee, is written for a counter-tenor and in often dramatic arioso form making him sound foreign to the other characters and the overall jollity of their music. David Walker’s voice is full and resonant, highly dramatic, and at far remove from the usual ‘early music’ sounding counter-tenor. Mary Hegarty who sang the Flight Controller at the opera’s Belgian premiere seems perfectly at ease, her high soprano, reaching up to high F and, not just the staccato pips of a Queen of the Night, but sustained phrases.
Nuala Willis, who created the Older Woman in 1998, reprises her role here. Willis's voice is a plaintive contralto that gives the comic but sad character’s realization that her holiday romancing days are over an air of melancholy. This sad character is a descendant of the love-lorn contraltos in Gilbert and Sullivan opera easily transposed into the twentieth century where she can contribute to a Gilbertian about marital relationships
“I stuck to my ex-husband like religion…I should have stuck to religion.
We always called each other names…Bastard! Moron! Rotten Sod!”
Just as the Older Woman may have stepped out of a Gilbert and Sullivan, Bill and Tina (the Brad and Janet of the opera world) and the flight attendants are stalwarts of British farce with their ‘carry on abroad’ antics or frenzied pantomime sex scenes. The libretto by April de Angelis merges farce and drama, particularly towards the end where the Diplomat’s wife gives birth on stage and the Refugee’s true plight is revealed. Like the music the libretto draws parallels with those of musicals and popular theatre in suggesting an embittered modern world even in a light-hearted story. The characters through their close encounters with each other emerge with a new perspective on their lot and voice their own personal revelations rather than draw a homogeneous moral.
With over sixty performances worldwide, a compact disc recording and forthcoming DVD Flight seems likely to join the still thin ranks of contemporary operas that survive alongside the standard repertoire.
Flight by Jonathan Dove
Adelaide Festival of Arts
Performance date 3 March 2006