Monday, February 20, 2017

Opera Parallèle's Flight

Last week Opera Parallèle offered a production of Flight, a British comic opera set in an airport departure lounge by Jonathan Dove which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1998 and has since been successfully performed around the world. There was much talk about the current relevance of the piece, since one of the main characters is a refugee stuck without papers for years on end at the airport, and the Opera Parallèle production was occurring simultaneously with Trump's "Muslim ban" playing out at airports across the United States.

That current controversy probably didn't help Flight because the opera was written when airports were still thought of as aspirational places where one could take flight to a new adventure. After 9/11 and its subsequent security theatre, and now with the Trump regime's attempts at creating Fortress America at customs areas in airports across the nation, the stock comic characters in Flight felt a bit boring and trivial. What kept the nearly three-hour opera interesting was the marvelous, colorful musical score with its hints of John Adams and Britten exquisitely performed by a sterling pick-up orchestra under Artistic Director Nicole Paiement, along with a splendidly designed production, and top-notch performances by ten singers.

Baritone Hadleigh Adams and soprano Maya Yahav Gour played a pair of randy flight attendants, and they were such lively, marvelous fun to watch that at times I yearned for the opera to be about them, an operatic version of a West End farce such as Boeing-Boeing or No Sex Please, We're British.

Soprano Amina Edris and tenor Chaz'men Williams-Ali played Tina and Bill, a couple having marital problems because Bill is supposedly so uptight, and they continuously quote from a marital self-help manual's bromides as they await a tropical vacation that will reawaken their passion. The roles felt like stock caricatures, as did the Older Woman awaiting her younger "fiance" sung by Catherine Cook, but the singing by all three was so good that it surmounted much of the dramatic falseness.

Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu and mezzo Renee Rapier played a diplomat newly posted to Minsk and his pregnant wife who decides not to board the airplane with him at the last minute, culminating in an awkward birth scene in the departure lounge. It was good to see the stalwart Brancoveanu again, but the revelation was Rapier, whose voice has blossomed into sheer gorgeousness.

The refugee was performed by countertenor Tai Oney in a sweet, touching style and the Air Traffic Controller by soprano Nikki Einfeld in a high-flying, virtuosic performance that reminded one Facebook friend of a "jealous deity." Bass-baritone Philip Skinner was luxury casting as the Immigration Officer, who hunts down the Refugee throughout the opera, but finally shows mercy and promises to cast a blind eye on his presence at the airport. Though based on the true story of an Iranian refugee stuck for years at the Charles de Gaulle airport in France, the plot point felt unbelievable for England with its rigid customs officials and particularly the United States, where the man would probably just be shipped to Guantanamo.

The many supernumeraries did a fine job marching on and off invisible planes, although it looked as if they all decided to travel to Minsk and return on the very next flight. The staging by Brian Staufenbiel was lively and inventive and the set designer David Dunning, Media Designer David Murakami, and Lighting Designer Matthew Antaky outdid themselves with a beautifully evocative production. The greatest asset was Artistic Director Nicole Paiement. I listened to a YouTube performance from Glyndebourne of Flight ahead of time, and the music did not sound half as rich and beautiful as it did live under Paiement. She's a magician who should be Music Director of some major opera house, but am selfishly glad she is not because Nicole is an irreplaceable Bay Area treasure.

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