It seems extraordinary that Jonathan Dove‘s Flight has not previously received a professional London debut until now, in an excellent production by Stephen Barlow for Opera Holland Park. I think of OHP, shortly to be transmogrified from something underwritten by a local government department to a charitable trust, as the London home of Italian verismo, with a special focus on the less familiar. In recent seasons we have enjoyed operas by Cilea, Montemezzi, Mascagni, Wolf-Ferrari, Catalani and Zandonai. More recently, OHP has ventured into the world of contemporary opera with the inclusion of children’s operas by Tobias Picker and Will Todd. 2015 marks the first time a major contemporary opera aimed at adults has made it to the main stage. On this showing, I sincerely hope productions of contemporary work of this calibre become a regular fixture in future seasons.
An excellent ensemble cast was very ably supported by the City of London Sinfonia, directed by Brad Cohen. In what must be one of the coldest Junes on record, it is remarkable that musicians swathed in greatcoats and woolly hats played as well as they did with only minor issues of intonation and ensemble as the howling gale blew from east to west across the pit.
Opera Holland Park is a great place for a casting director to hear a bunch of younger singers on their way to greater things. In the context of Flight, each character was given at least one “aria,” there was plenty of physical comedy (movement director, Sam Spencer-Lane) and throughout various different combinations of singers sang as an ensemble.
You might be forgiven for thinking “British minimalist composer who writes tunes: that’ll be easy to sing,” but Mr Dove is more than a one-trick composer and I understand after hearing British Youth Opera sing The Little Green Swallow last year that his vocal writing is in fact quite challenging. The stratospheric soprano writing, handled so very ably by Jennifer France as the Controller, would not disgrace an opera by Luigi Nono. During the night of the storm, she comes down from her lofty control tower and moves across the darkened lounge like a ghost, singing a mad scene worthy of any bel canto diva. In fact there were so many references to other composers woven into the eclectic tapestry of the score of Flight that I decided Jonathan Dove was offering any connoisseurs of contemporary opera in the audience (there must have been plenty at Glyndebourne in 1998) a series of jokes within what is already a darkly comic opera. You couldn’t miss the various references to Copland, especially the brass heralding the refugee’s resurrection with the opening chords of The Fanfare for the Common Man. The young man on his way to a diplomatic appointment in Minsk (the Minskman) sings repeated broken phrases reminiscent of John Adams’ Nixon in China and I am convinced that the Minskwoman’s lament for her lost identity was a wonderful pastiche on Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. In the interview with the composer published in the programme he says, “Britten has always got there first.” Benjamin Britten had a talent for producing opera which is accessible and engaging yet at the same time dramatic, moving and often achingly beautiful. Mr Dove pays homage to his great predecessor in the final transcendent lament of the refugee, which somehow echoes Billy Budd. It would be wrong to call this opera a parody as the variety of musical borrowings of style, harmony and word-painting are mixed deftly into the score in tribute to iconic moments
The Controller spends much of her time floating her steely yet ethereal lines over the assembled cast and audience from the lofty control tower. Ms France sang with a crystalline beauty, able to float phrases despite the stratospheric tessitura. I thought her transition from lonely isolation via her poignant raging at the presence of others in her normally silent nighttime to the final moment when she reached out to the Refugee in a final ray of humanity were beautifully and compellingly executed.
James Laing sang the role of the Refugee, waiting in the airport lounge with the others, in his case for a brother who, like him, had set off from some unnamed foreign land stowed away in the undercarriage of a plane. Mr Laing has a beautiful, creamy, unforced countertenor which, to my ears, gains in character the higher he sings. Once or twice in full flight (no pun intended) his voice rang out over our heads, embodying the desperate plight of refugees who risk losing everything in order to attain freedom. But his role is not all about doom and gloom. Mr Laing is also hugely seductive when convincing each woman that she is being entrusted with a unique magic stone, guaranteed to turn her life around. OHP doesn’t have a pit and yet Flight uses a sizeable orchestra with brass and percussion. I seized the opportunity to sit in rows G and U at different times in the performance and wish the musical director had done the same in rehearsal. A minor adjustment in the balance between singer and orchestra would have convinced me that Mr Laing has the dynamic range to sing contemporary roles in a major house rather than staying within his comfort zone of baroque repertoire where he clearly excels. Even in competition with a modern chamber orchestra, he was nevertheless able to offer moments of transcendent beauty.
Ellie Laugharne as Tina was the other singer whose vocal lines were at times covered by the wash of orchestral sound. Nevertheless she made a convincing, coquettish Tina, off to Spain in the hope of rekindling her love life with boring Bill. This in essence is what April de Angelis’ script is about. Several passengers and two air stewards find themselves grounded for one night in an airport (excellent designs by Andrew Riley) where the Controller resents their incursion into her territory and the Refugee is stranded, unable to leave because he has no passport and therefore no identity. All the others are in search of something – for the pregnant Minkswoman it is a reason to follow her husband to the distant outpost of Minsk, relinquishing her right to choose where to live and who to be. Bill and Tina want to rekindle their lost sex life. The stewards want sex and excitement, but are fearful of too much freedom. A lone older woman waits in vain for a young holiday date to visit and become her fourth husband. You could argue both the Controller and Immigration Officer need to reconnect with their lost humanity.
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Bill sang with the panache of someone at home in contemporary music. (The last time I heard him he was singing at the Proms in the UK premiere of Birtwistle’s Angel Fighter.) He gave us a wonderful comic turn with some great stage business about the wrong trousers. Lucy Schaufer as the older woman, perennially in search of love and companionship, conveyed the paradox of vulnerability and the “Ach ya” of a Marschallin, losing her Octavian to a Sophie. Victoria Simmonds as the Minkswoman held the audience with rapt attention in her true-to-life lament about the loss of a woman’s freedom as she makes the transition into motherhood. George von Bergen and Kitty Whately gave us yet another perspective on the search for love. Nicholas Garrett as the Minksman revealed a clear baritone and the best diction of the night while John Savournin offered a wonderful warm bass in transition from a jobsworth into a decent human being.
But above all, what was special about this cast was the frankly superb ensemble singing. Having been impressed by the cast of young British singers in Solaris in Paris, it was great to hear ensemble singing of comparable quality in a British venue. On the basis of this excellent evening’s entertainment, I sincerely hope this won’t be the last time Opera Holland Park ventures into the world of contemporary opera.
(Photos : Robert Workman)