Christian Masucci Facchini (Refugee), Emma MacNeil (Controller), Maria Milenic (Minskwoman),Colin MacKey (Minskman), Elena Howard-Scott (Tina), Ross Mortimer (Bill), Alexa Frankian (Older Woman), Hannah Crawford (Stewardess), Simon Gidora (Steward), Ben Loyst (Immigration Officer), Nicholas Kiuftinger (Baggage Carrier 1), Jeffrey Liu (Baggage Carrier 2); Royal Conservatory Orchestra, Gordon Gerrard, conductor; Anna Theodosakis, director; Michelle Tracey, set & costume designer. Koerner Hall, March 17, 2023.
Since its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1999, Flight has become the most popular works among the prodigious output of British composer Jonathan Dove. It has received some two dozen productions in European houses the likes of Netherlands Reisopera, Vlaamse Opera (Belgium), Oper Leipzig, Scottish Opera, as well as Boston, Des Moines, Utah, Seattle and Dallas on this side of the pond.
Canada is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to this opera. Flight finally received its Canadian premiere at the Pacific Opera Victoria, just before the Pandemic hit in March 2020. The Toronto premiere took place last week at Koerner Hall for two performances, presented by the Royal Conservatory of Music/Glenn Gould School as its spring offering.
My previous exposure to Jonathan Dove was his Mansfield Park, staged by the University of Toronto Opera in early March 2020, just before COVID-19 put all in-person concerts to a grinding halt. To my eyes and ears, Flight is an altogether stronger work musically and makes for good theatre, given its more contemporary resonance. I attended the second of two performances, where an enthusiastic audience gave the cast and crew a resounding ovation at the end.
Dove and his librettist April De Angelis draw their inspiration from the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who made headlines by living in the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for an unbelievable 18 years. He was allowed to stay in the terminal but was unable to leave the airport. He ultimately died of a heart attack at the airport just this past November, at age 77.
While the refugee character is front and centre, Flight is very much an ensemble work, populated by no fewer than ten finely drawn personalities. The story details all the goings on when they are stuck at the departure lounge due to a storm. It makes for a treasure trove of character studies. Among them are two couples — Tina and Bill, hoping their holiday will rekindle their love for each other; the other couple is simply known as Minskman and Minskwoman, a diplomat going to his new post with his heavily pregnant and reluctant wife, who’s afraid to fly. For good reason — she gives birth right in the terminal.
Then there’s the Older Woman, waiting in vain for her young lover to show up. And what’s an airport without a steward and stewardess? We are given an amoral couple ready to go at it at the drop of a hat. This motley crew is overseen by the airport Controller, here scored for a coloratura soprano with music that goes up to an incredible F-sharp above high C — that’s higher than Queen of the Night, folks! No matter, soprano Emma MacNeil was up to the task, and so was the rest of the talented RCM cast.
While the Koerner Hall stage really isn’t designed for staged opera, the space proved perfect as an airport departure lounge, here given a simple yet highly effective design by Michelle Tracey. The Royal Conservatory Orchestra is deftly led by guest conductor Gordon Gerrard. Flight is a full-length piece with three acts, here performed with a single intermission between acts 2 and 3.
Despite a fundamentally dark story, Flight is a comedy, rather surprisingly, even improbably. To be honest, it’s not easy to find humour in a plot that includes a desperate refugee trying to evade the immigration officer, two unhappy couples, plus the story of an escapee falling to his death from a wheel well of a plane in the air. No matter, in Dove’s single-minded vision, it somehow worked, especially if you buy into his concept.
Jonathan Dove’s score is tonal and accessible — and enjoyable, with actual arias, but never old-fashioned. Some of the orchestration is quite heavy. Yet the voices came through better than I had expected. I heard on good authority later that there was discreet use of amplification. No wonder at one point, when the Controller was reaching for her stratospheric top notes, the sound technician likely got carried away and my ears were ringing!
Amplification or not, the talented RCM cast offered fresh, beautiful voices and total dramatic commitment. There was not a weak link in the cast. Particularly noteworthy was countertenor Christian Masucci Facchini as the Refugee. I recall his impressive Rinaldo a year ago at the RCM production of the Handel opera. High soprano Emma MacNeil was terrific as the Controller, with the most music to sing. Mezzo Maria Milenic was excellent as the Minskwoman, well partnered by Colin Mackey as her husband.
Not to be outdone, Elena Howard-Scott and Ross Mortimer made a droll husband and wife team. Hannah Crawford and Simon Gidora were hilarious as the flight attendants. It can’t be easy for a young artist to play an older woman, but Alexa Franklin was entirely convincing — and I mean that in a good way. This was the first time I experienced the conducting of Gordon Gerrard, music director of the Regina Symphony Orchestra. He led the RCM forces in a well paced and assured reading of the striking score.
All in all, a most enjoyable evening at the opera.
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