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Reviews

<em>Die Fledermaus</em>, Des Moines Metro Opera
10 Jul 2018

Flight Soars High in Des Moines

Jonathan Dove’s innovative opera Flight is being lavished with an absolutely riveting new production at Des Moines Metro Opera’s resoundingly successful 2018 Festival.

Die Fledermaus, Des Moines Metro Opera

A review by James Sohre

Above: image courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera

 

The story in brief involves a Refugee who is living at a major airport, unable to leave, and his interaction with the travelers/employees who are taking a flight, or who are “in flight” from obligations, relationships, or duties.

I am not sure what other opera companies are doing for world class singers at the moment, since they seem to all have been assembled in Indianola, Iowa to people this exquisitely realized performance.

Mr. Dove has set April DeAngelis’ epigrammatic libretto to a diverse, evocative score, often haunting and melancholy, frequently ironic and funny, sometimes profoundly moving, always exceedingly vibrant in theatrical and musical invention. Dove is a master orchestrator and his vocal writing, whether angular, melismatic, conversational, or lyrical, is supported by richly diversified orchestral effects.

Music Director David Neely exerted consummate control over his amassed forces, conducting a reading of sweeping power and jaw-dropping precision. DMMO’s fine orchestra has had a banner year, and they distinguished themselves yet again with a crackling reading of Dove’s richly layered, rhythmically propulsive opus. Maestro Neely inspired nuanced playing from each and every instrumentalist, whether in solo or ensemble passages, and melded them fortuitously with the singers, creating a musico-dramatic work of sensational impact.

The vocal work was uniformly exceptional, revealing each soloist at the top of their game. Composer Dove gave the signature, extended emotional “moments” to the Refugee and the Minsk Woman. John Holiday brought his distinctive counter-tenor to the Refugee and he proved a charismatic, galvanizing presence. His is a uniquely appealing, star quality instrument, and his ingratiating persona makes him a fan magnet. Mr. Holiday’s penultimate aria, which finally reveals the secret of his situation, was ineffably moving.

The superlative mezzo Elise Quagliata was an enigmatic and powerful Minskwoman, i.e. a passenger supposed to be bound for Minsk. Ms. Quagliata’s character is in the late stages of pregnancy, and her hormonal swings are the cause for lyric outbursts, recriminations, and finally resignation. In her major scena, Elise poured out beautifully judged fiery, arching phrases that captured the heart and ravished the ear. Her richly-colored mezzo was always powerful and persuasive.

Audrey Luna was a commanding presence as the Controller, who oversees and reports events. Ms. Luna has a crystal clear, pliant soprano that has to be among the purist and most finely spun in the business. From the stratospheric top notes to a gleaming middle voice to a secure bottom range, this prodigiously gifted singer imbued every phrase with ravishing vocalizing. Her fine sense of legato caressed the numerous melismatic passages in the role, but when it came time for spitfire commentary, she hurled out bolts of sound penetrating well into the wild blue yonder.

As the perpetually horny Stewardess and Steward, Sofia Selowsky and Theo Hoffman were vocally lustrous and theatrically unrestrained. Ms. Selowsky sports a wonderfully ripe mezzo, warm throughout, gleaming on top. Mr. Hoffman’s appealing, diminutive frame houses a polished, booming baritone that seems about three sizes bigger than he is. Together, they complemented each other musically and dramatically, as they provocatively worked their way through the Kama Sutra, unselfconsciously simulating all manner of randy sexual abandon.

Tenor Andrew Bidlack (Bill) and soprano Zulimar López-Hernández (Tina) were the young hipster couple escaping on vacation together in an attempt to rejuvenate their waning romance. Mr. Bidlack has an effortlessly produced, honeyed lyric tenor who brings Rossinian grace and fluidity to his rangy vocal lines. His rolled eyes and put-upon shrugs as his wife keeps picking at him were boyishly engaging. His character eventually gets pushed away to experiment quite willingly with a different kind of human connection.

Ms. López-Hernández creates a delectably fussy princess as the controlling spouse, all the while singing with glistening tone that is wedded to an admirably steady technique. Her refulgent upper register was especially sonorous and her unbridled physicality including defiantly showing off a beach body that is worthy of Baywatch.

As the deluded/hopeful Older Woman, Deanne Meek wielded a velvety mezzo that gloved a nice underlying bite in the tone. Ms. Meek created a figure of some pathos as she waits for her 22-year old young lover (who may as well be named Godot) to show up. But she never became an unappealing victim, relishing every one of her comic lines as she feigned speaking French, and injecting some welcome vocal gravity in the mix with her beautifully warm, sustained phrases.

The Minskman was glowingly sung by Norman Garrett. The burnished character of his substantial baritone and his informed delivery made us wish he had even more stage time. Ditto the always impressive bass Zachary James as the Immigration Officer. We have to wait until Act Three for him to sing, but when he rolls forth with his darkly colored, pulsating musical lines, we find it was well worth the wait.

Director Kristine McIntyre has inspired this miracle of an ensemble cast to the highest possible level of achievement. The personal journey of each character has its own arc and together the team has not only defined the individual’s quests, but also has woven them together so that in the end, they are all surprised as they embrace their interdependence.

Two ladies sitting next to me were somewhat perplexed by what the story means, why there was no conventional plot, etc. And therein lies one beauty of Flight. It allows us to speculate. It gives us vignettes and lets us struggle to resolve them. It challenges us to face dynamics in our lives, relationships, situations, where we ourselves were tempted to flee. It tells us that life is not always linear, but sometimes parenthetical. And it makes us reflect upon how well we treat not only “others,” but the “Other.” And Team Flight accomplished this with humor, tireless physical movement, utter belief in the material, limitless application of talent, and profound compassion for the frailty of their (and our) characters.

Back to the unerring staging from Ms. McIntyre, she used every possible inch of the playing space with variety and abandon. And what a playing space it is! None of us has likely ever spent time in an airport lounge this coolly beautiful. R. Keith Brumley’s set is a marvel of circular concepts. A low railing, like a classy circus ring defines and contains the fore stage. Upstage of the proscenium, a winding staircase leads up to the control room, a high tech crow’s nest from which the Controller can pontificate. A glass door leads outside to a balcony.

Stage right has a forbidding security door, while stage left features a wall of windows behind which is parked a jet plane that can be pushed back and disappear. The ever-handy downstage trap is filled with a spiral staircase down to a secretive “level two.” The stairs can retract and the gap closes to form additional playing space. When the flooring parts once more and a unit rises from the depths to elevate the very tall Immigration Officer high above the frightened Refugee, the effect suggests the last judgment on steroids.

Mr. Brumley’s pristine terminal also has recessed lighting built into it. Combined with Barry Steele’s richly complex lighting and projection design, this was a wonderland for colorful effects, to include a zany tropical sidebar that morphs into a sort of realization of the mindless crescendo of kitschy extravagance in Bernstein’s Island Magic (Trouble in Tahiti).

Designer Jonathan Knipscher is having a blast providing some of his best costumes ever, really personalizing the characters, and he includes a couple of tricks and jokes that really enliven the proceedings. From the cool elegance of the well-off, pregnant Minskwoman to the third world homeliness of the Refugee to the buttoned down Controller’s uniform to the boisterous flight attendants’ look, the costumes were witty, telling and apt.

Flight was a uniquely satisfying journey with echoes of today’s headlines, musically vibrant and theatrically engaging, passionately presented by a thoroughbred team of interpreters who simply could not have been bettered. Bravi tutti!

James Sohre

Flight
Jonathan Dove, Music
April DeAngelis, Libretto

Refugee: John Holiday; Controller: Audrey Luna; Bill: Andrew Bidlack; Tina: Zulimar López-Hernández; Older Woman: Deanne Meek; Stewardess: Sofia Selowsky; Steward: Theo Hoffman; Minskman: Norman Garrett; Minskwoman: Elise Quagliata; Immigration Officer: Zachary James; Conductor: David Neely; Director: Kristine McIntyre; Set Design: R. Keith Brumley; Costume Design: Jonathan Knipscher; Lighting and Video Design: Barry Steele; Make-up and Hair Design: Brittany Crinson for Elsen Associates

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