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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Jonathan DOVE (b.1959)
Flight

Refugee – Christopher Robson (counter-tenor)
Controller – Claron McFadden (soprano)
Bill – Richard Coxon (tenor)
Tina – Mary Plazas (soprano)
Older Woman – Nuala Willis (mezzo-soprano)
Stewardess – Ann Taylor (mezzo-soprano)
Steward – Gary Magee (baritone)
Minskman – Steven Page (bass-baritone)
Minskwoman – Anne Mason (mezzo-soprano)
Immigration Officer – Richard Van Allan (bass-baritone)
Glyndebourne Festival Opera
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
Recorded Glyndebourne September 1999
CHANDOS CHAN10197(2) [64.55 + 64.17]


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 people.

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 about them.

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 up here.

I’m so high.

Do you come here often?

Both: We’re so high up here.

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 everyone.

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 exploit.

Robert Hugill

 



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