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Jonathan Dove Flight Flemish Opera, Antwerp, 15 February 2002 (PGW)

Jonathan Dove's Flight has made an auspicious landing in Flanders. The new co-production with Glyndebourne Touring Opera had its Belgian premiere at the Vlaamse Opera Antwerp and is to fly on to Ghent. Two roles were taken by singers from the original production, Nuala Willis, who portrays with great dignity the Older Woman waiting hopelessly for her holiday 'fiancé', and Christopher Robson, stepping back at short notice into the role he had created as the Refugee, waiting for his brother who had fallen to his death from the wheel of the plane in which they were both stowaways. The Flemish Opera orchestra under Paul McGrath gave a fully realised account of the score, and the Antwerp audience (which was supplied with the full English text and with bi-lingual French/Flemish surtitles) received Flight with unbounded enthusiasm.

This compelling modern day parable of messy human lives becoming grounded by emotional turbulence gains immeasurably from being seen a second time and was, if anything, even more powerful in the settings at Vlaamse Opera, its exquisitely ornate 19th C interior a perfect counterpoint to the somewhat tacky functionalist stage picture of an airport departure lounge and control room. The prison analogy of people trapped in uncongenial surroundings is pertinent and potent. The first time, Dove's original score, daringly 'accessible' and deceptively simple, dominated my attention. Second time round it receded into a proper perspective, falling into place and allowing fuller concentration upon the whole dramma per musica, which is far more metaphorical than its seeming realism suggests at first.

The creation and production of Flight was in every way a group achievement, which must have evolved through a long, exciting process of collaboration. April de Angelis's libretto repays thorough study to grasp its psychological depth. It portrays complex human circumstances, often uncomfortable and sad, enhanced with precise language counterpointed with humour and funny situations. Richard Jones' direction is magisterial in his deployment of a Mozartean ensemble of principals and in his control of their ever-changing relationships.

The detail of Giles Cadle's stage picture and Nicky Gillibrand's costumes are essential in placing the action, watched over from above by the Controller (Mary Hegarty), a character with many resonances, whose aloofness gives way to vulnerability as she comes to relate to the Refugee after the feared Immigration Officer (Brindley Sherrat) has been turned into a benign deus ex machina figure at the end. The Refugee, Christopher Robson in fine voice, his body-language further developed since the 1998 premiere, is rejected as a nuisance until his 'story' has been belatedly disclosed, and only then at last treated as a human being by the passengers, preoccupied with their own problems whilst take-off was delayed by electric storms. The final act is full of surprises and unsuspected depths under its surface brilliance. Mimi Jordan Sherin's creative lighting underscores the story with its breadth of meanings and references, brilliantly illuminating 'darkness', hilariously so in the Whitehall-farcical lost trousers scene, which veers to echo Figaro's wrigglings to get out of a scrape in Mozart's Act 2! The more that the lies multiply in desperate efforts to dissimulate, the brighter and harder is the light.

For what may be the first birthing in opera to take place in full view, messily confused as these things are, the framing and lighting supported the virtuosity of the direction, and of Catherine Malone's choreography, to evoke touchingly a tender Nativity scene at the crucial pivotal moment, a catalyst for change which generates new beginnings and a tenuous resolution of the many personal conflicts being enacted for a group of people who entered as stereotypes and had grown into individuals with whom we could identify.

There are no minor characters, each has an essential and rewarding part to play and sing, with no let-downs. Brett Polegato and Nerys Jones provide us (and each other) with some light relief as the carefree, sexy steward and stewardess who are 'always smiling as you can see'. John McVeigh and Yvette Bonner portrayed convincingly the young couple's fraught and stressed relationship, studying a sex manual, their spiky tension covered by bubbling exteriors; Robert Poulton and Christine Rice, the older pair whose relationship had reached an impasse, go through separation and reconciliation. In a brilliant coup de theatre all the travellers, including the jilted Older Woman, fly off with new hope, a bitter-sweet resolution and as equivocal an ending as that of Cosi Fan Tutte.

Flight bids fair to becoming an enduring classic of late 20th C opera. Jonathan Dove is a prolific composer who engages himself in British musical life in a way that Benjamin Britten used to. He has made important contributions to community opera in London with The Palace in the Sky and The Hackney Chronicles, and his next major opera for the world's opera stages is keenly awaited.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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