In today’s fragmented
musical world, a composer of a new opera
must first make decisions about the
work’s dramatic structure: narrative/non-narrative,
experimental, de-constructing the form,
traditional etc. Many of the recent
mainstream operatic commissions in the
UK have gone for a traditional narrative
form, something which can be difficult
to bring off and requires miracles of
compression on behalf of the librettist
if the narrative is based on a pre-existing
novel or play.
Of course, a big problem
is that we have no real concept any
more of a journeyman opera composer,
no place for someone to learn his trade
and make small-scale mistakes. Jonathan
Dove is thus in rather a singular position
as he has a good background as an operatic
journeyman. He produced a masterly arrangement
of Wagner’s Ring for reduced orchestra
for City of Birmingham Touring Opera,
doing the same service for ‘La Cenerentola’,
‘The Cunning Little Vixen’, ‘The Magic
Flute’ and ‘Falstaff’. He has also received
plaudits for his work in community opera,
writing three for Glyndebourne prior
to composing ‘Flight’. He also worked
at the Batignano Festival and wrote
small-scale works for them.
So it should not be
surprising, that when faced with a commission
for a three act opera to be premiered
by Glyndebourne Touring Opera, Dove
and his librettist April De Angelis
came up with a highly satisfactory theatrical
work. ‘Flight’ is the sort of opera
that used to be common currency in opera
houses in the days when commissions
were regular items: a work which is
effective, concise, fluent and wears
its operatic pedigree lightly.
For their plot, Dove
and De Angelis have sensibly eschewed
pure narrative opera and chosen what
might be termed ‘closed room’ opera.
A group of people are placed in a space
and the drama consists primarily of
their development and interaction. It
is a form which has firm roots in the
baroque opera seria, where the form
gave much scope for personal interaction
rather than narrative development. Given
Dove’s association with Batignano this
link is not surprising.
‘Flight’ is notionally
a comic opera; at least the live audience
at the performance on this disc found
it funny. De Angelis’s libretto is a
miracle of conciseness and can be highly
elliptical in a way which is amusing.
But neither Dove nor De Angelis try
to be funny, humour arises out of situation
and out of the relationship between
The personnel of the
opera are based on operatic archetypes
and in the handling of these archetypes
that Dove and De Angelis display their
comfort at re-using and re-cycling past
operatic forms rather then being embarrassed
The opera is set in
an airport departure lounge and as the
curtain opens there are just the Controller
(Claron McFadden, coloratura soprano)
and the Refugee (Christopher Robson,
counter-tenor). These two characters’
voices separate them from the rest of
the cast and help delineate their isolation.
First to arrive are the two lovers,
Bill and Tina, (Richard Coxon, tenor,
and Mary Plazas, soprano). They are
gooily in love but as their relationship
develops we discover that they are rather
too dependent on a book of rules to
help the relationship. It gradually
comes out that Tina finds Bill too predictable.
Next to arrive is the
Older Woman (Nuala Willis, contralto).
She is the epitome of the Gilbert and
Sullivan contralto, laughably in love
with a younger man. But Dove and De
Angelis make her all too human and not
laughable as she waits for the arrival
of her longed for ‘fiancée’ (he
never does arrive).
The Steward and Stewardess
(Gary Magee, baritone and Ann Taylor,
mezzo-soprano) are helpful and over-sexed,
perhaps capitalising of Magee’s status
as a fine Don Giovanni. The final arrivals
are a diplomatic couple, Minskman and
Minskwoman (Steven Page, bass-baritone,
and Anne Mason, mezzo-soprano). They
are off to Minsk where he has been posted;
she is pregnant. Drama ensues when she
feels she cannot go and he rushes off
to catch the flight alone.
By the end of Act I
we feel that we are beginning to know
the characters when suddenly all flights
are cancelled due to storms. Act II
takes place during the airport at night.
The Controller’s position in things
is not so much to control the drama
as to provide a commentary on it; she
has seen it all before. The role calls
for stratospheric vocal lines and McFadden
copes wonderfully though not without
a hint of strain.
The other outsider,
the Refugee, is constantly trying to
find his place in the world, but he
is lacking any sort of passport or document.
Robson is touching and dramatically
credible in this role but his voice
now sounds rather frayed at the edges.
During the night the
Refugee gives a ‘magic stone’ to each
of the women in turn, convincing them
that it will solve their problems. Bill
goes wandering and, in an attempt not
to be predictable, attempts to pick
up the stewardess. In fact it is the
steward and the two go off to explore
the airport and by metaphorical extension,
themselves as well. Their dialogue for
these scenes (which inter-cut the action
between the rest of the cast) is a fine
example of De Angelis’s skills at compression.
One of their scenes goes simply:-
(Bill and the Steward
have made their way to the control tower)
Bill: We’re so high
I’m so high.
Do you come here often?
Both: We’re so high
Bill: What’s this for?
Steward: Let’s see..
The women and the Refugee
get drunk and they discover he has given
them all ‘magic stones’ so they attack
him. When he collapses they hide him
in a trunk.
Act III opens with
the storm having abated. Minskman has
returned on the first available flight
and is forced to abandon habitual reserve
and put his feelings for his wife into
words. Bill and the Steward appear,
Bill just in his underwear and the Steward
wearing Bill’s trousers. The resulting
ensemble is highly comic and operatic
without ever losing sight of the fundamental
distress of the participants; it concludes
with Tina hitting Bill with her rule
book and him collapsing. Minskwoman
gives birth on stage and the result
has a cathartic effect on everyone.
She and her husband resolve to go to
Minsk, their relationship changed. The
Steward and Stewardess’s relation is
also transformed. When Bill comes to
he has no remembrance of the past events;
he and Tina go off to their holiday
with new names, new personas resolving
to start again from scratch and throw
the rule book away. The Refugee is confronted
by the Immigration Officer (Richard
Van Allen, bass baritone) but his story
is pitiful and the Officer allows him
to stay here, in limbo. The Older Woman
accepts her fate and looks forward to
another holiday, another encounter with
a young man. Finally they are all gone
leaving just the Refugee and the Controller.
Dove does not shy away
from operatic musical forms, there is
much use of ensemble and he is skilful
at both word setting and in using orchestrations
which enable the cast to get the words
over. He also uses melody and his style
could be fundamentally described as
Romantic. Lacking a chorus, he is adept
at using the full ensemble to good effect;
there is a stunning moment when, in
unison, they describe an aircraft taking
off. He creates magical ensembles out
of moments which look quite banal on
paper, such as when the Refugee describes
the properties of the magic stone to
There are, of course,
numerous references to past styles and
forms. But, as I have said, Dove is
not embarrassed by this; he is not trying
to be ironic. And that is his strength,
he has the commitment, experience and
confidence in the form simply to build
on the past and create his own vision.
In terms of the aural
style - what the piece actually sounds
like - it is very easy to go style-spotting
but there seem to be three main influences.
Much of the word-setting and rhythm
is akin to Sondheim, the orchestration
owes much to the sound-world of John
Adams, and Leonard Bernstein (in ‘Trouble
in Tahiti’ mode) is a perpetual presence.
The result is effective and attractive.
Dove creates some stunning sound-scapes,
with much use of tuned percussion, without
ever overwhelming his singers.
The singers themselves
form a truly stunning ensemble and all
work hard, giving full, rounded performances.
This disc was recorded live and was,
in fact, the sound-track to the Channel
4 broadcast of the opera. I can think
of no greater compliment than to say
that they sound as if they have been
singing the music all their lives, creating
a fully dramatic musical whole and never
once do you have to excuse someone because
it is new music.
The orchestra, the
London Philharmonic Orchestra, under
David Parry, acquit themselves wonderfully.
They relish Dove’s shimmering sound-scapes
and create a lovely sound, but under
Parry’s experienced baton, they never
tax the singers too much.
The booklet includes
a perceptive essay by Rodney Milnes,
many production photos and the full
libretto (in English only).
This is a lovely performance
of a fine, attractive opera. It is heartening
to see that, for once, a contemporary
composer has managed to create something
contemporary without being embarrassed
by the past. Dove’s musical language
is expressive, romantic even, though
it is not cutting-edge modernism nor
does it use romantic gesture for irony.
The opera is not a soul-searching masterpiece,
but it is fluent and entertaining; surely
what De Angelis and Dove intended. I
recommend it wholeheartedly and can
only look forward to Dove’s next operatic