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Snappily Executed

Jonathan Dove's opera 'Flight'


I have always been puzzled as to why Jonathon Dove's opera Flight has not had a greater take up with UK opera companies. You would have thought that such a charming, well made contemporary opera would have a regular place on London operatic stages. Perhaps the problem is that the opera fails to stretch the boundaries and is a little too eager to please. Dove and librettist April de Angelis stick to the classical unities and present a group of characters trapped for twenty-four hours in one place. They are entirely cognisant and respectful of operatic tradition so that the work fits neatly into existing norms. It also entirely lacks the angst which is common in many contemporary operas, De Angelis' libretto is entirely too witty and Dove's music too pleasant to give the audience difficulties. In short, they have written a taut, well made, crowd pleasing traditional opera; would that we had more of them.

British Youth Opera presented the opera as the second work in its 2008 London season [seen Wednesday 10 September 2008, Peacock Theatre]. In a neat production by Martin Lloyd-Evans with minimal sets by Bridget Kimak, the emphasis was on crisp stage work, characterisation and musicianship. The piece works well with young singers, there is only one character who is defined as being older (the Old Woman, played by Emma Carrington) and BYO assembled a cast who worked well together as well as making the most of the short solo moments which Dove gives them.

The characters are in many ways generic. There is the young couple (Bill and Tina) going on holiday to try and recapture the romance in their lives, beautifully caught by Nicky Spence and Colette Boushell. They neatly managed to mix the comedy of their relationship (the couple's dependence on their lucky donkey and instruction book) with a certain poignancy for a relationship in trouble.

The Older Woman, who is waiting for her young lover whom she met on holiday, was rendered touching and not too ridiculous by Carrington. The diplomat and his pregnant wife (Aaron Alphonsus McAuley and Charlotte Stephenson) must grapple not only with a foreign posting (to Minsk) but with the strangeness of a first pregnancy. Stephenson caught the uncertainty of the woman's feeling regarding her baby. McAuley's size gave him a suitable gravitas as the diplomat and his return and declaration of love was thus rendered all the more moving by his previously controlled demeanour.

Kristen Darragh as the Stewardess, Charlotte Stephenson as the Minskwoman and Emma Carrington as the older woman in rehearsal for Jonathan Dove's 'Flight'
Kristen Darragh as the Stewardess, Charlotte Stephenson as the Minskwoman and Emma Carrington as the older woman in rehearsal for Jonathan Dove's 'Flight'

The Steward and the Stewardess (Duncan Rock and Kristen Darragh) have a relationship based on nothing but sex (which they do at a moment's notice). Despite all the events of the day you know that they are the ones who will change least.

Overseeing all this is the Controller (Verity Parker) who does not really like people and prefers the orderliness of the skies. Parker coped very well with the character's tricky high tessitura and made her into a believable person. The Controller's relationship with the Refugee is complex. The Refugee (Andrew Radley) is the darkest character in the opera. This was neatly caught by Radley who always seemed an observer, on the outside of the other's problems. His own monologue at the end, when we finally learn his tragic history, was profoundly moving. The opera closes with the other characters finally flying off, leaving the Refugee and the Controller with a curious hint of a continuing relationship between them.

Finally there was the Immigration Officer, a small role well taken by Oliver Hunt.

Dove and de Angelis apply classic opera seria techniques to their very modern characters, placing them in awkward situations, stressing them and seeing what happens. The central post of this is the scene in Act 2 when the women get drunk together, whilst Bill and the Steward go off together. Bill and the Steward have sex together and the women ultimately turn on the Refugee, hit him and put his 'body' into a trunk; acts which change the balance in relationships.

Dove and De Angelis resort to trickery to get things back together, leaving us with no untidy ends; but this is a comic opera after all. The birth of the pregnant couple's baby casts, perhaps, a little too much sentiment into this act. But Lloyd-Evans's coup de théâtre, having the still living Refugee appear out of the trunk with the baby, did rather emphasise this vein of sentiment.

Apart from this, Lloyd-Evans' production was crisp and fast paced, as it should be. His cast were uniformly excellent, neatly rendering Mandy Demetriou's movement and balancing the requirements of stylised drama with musicianship. Whereas this season's other BYO production, La Rondine, gave us promising singers exploring the repertoire in a fascinating and creditable performance, this production of Flight was snappily executed and would be a credit to any opera company.

I must pay tribute to Nicholas Cleobury and his hard working band, the Southbank Sinfonia. Dove gives the orchestra, notably the large percussion section, plenty to think about, and the band acquitted themselves superbly and never compromised the balance even though the percussion and piano overflowed into the auditorium.

Flight is a neat, perfectly formed modern comic opera, given the sort of impressive performance by BYO which left me wondering again why we don't hear more of it.

Copyright © 14 September 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK


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