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Music: Flight

By Leslie Herman
ART TIMES Online January 2014

I went to see the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) student production of Jonathan Dove’s contemporary English-language opera Flight at the Sherman Theatre on Thursday night.

I am, by no means, an opera aficionado; I will not blind you with opera-science. I neither love nor hate opera, I like it. Apart from the typical length of a production which always seems excessive to me, I actually like and appreciate most aspects of opera, and one of the things I like most is the luxury of a live orchestra. From the third row at Sherman Theatre’s sleek main stage theatre, I could see into the orchestra pit and indulge.

I probably like the idea of going to the opera more than anything, though my track record of attendance shows I need a significant amount of time between one opera and the next. Ironically, I bumped into a friend in the bar before the show. An IT guy by day, he was having a drink with friends from his French class and seemed relieved as he told me that he wasn't going in. The last time he was at the opera he imagined throwing himself off the stage ‘to end it all’. (Is it ‘the opera’ or is it just ‘opera’? I’m pretty sure the ‘the’ in ‘the opera’ refers to the opera house, the place where opera is performed. And have I, by now, turned purists off? Would I have been able to meet their expectations anyway? I won’t try.)

Back to this opera, Flight, which sounded really very interesting. I was expecting something avant-garde, and I got it.

Set in the departure lounge of an unspecified airport and based on a true-life story, the uncluttered cool grey set oozed anonymity. Credit to set designer, Amy Hudson, and lighting designer, Ben Stimpson: both were creative and effective -- naturalistic enough to make them believable, and functional and appealing enough to sustain a three-act piece.

Silence fell across the theatre. Conductor, David Jones, took his place. The Refugee (Joe Bolger), who was sprawled across a grey metal bench, stood up; the music began. His countertenor solo, strange and wonderful, begged the question: What language is he singing in? I double-checked the programme. Opera has that effect on me: part of its allure is its ‘othernessness’. It took me a little while to recognise it as English!

Adjusting my personal settings to include the high-pitched male voice, and plugging into the English, Angel De Angelis’ libretto was humorous and alarmingly frank. I liked her use of everyday modern language. In a foreign tongue all nuances would be missed, of course. The comic-kitsch couple going on holiday hoping to reinvigorate their relationship, Tina and Bill, played by Trystan Llyr Griffiths and Francesca Aquilina, sang through over-stretched smiles: ‘Costume elastic; double fantastic; we’ll feel the way we did before on holiday’.

The score was rich with variation. It was both lyrical and not lyrical. Rich harmonies mixed with discords. It was both accessible and challenging. One moment everything flowed and I felt relaxed and comfortable, the next, I didn’t -- especially during sections which contained out-of-orbit highs and dark lows for the Controller (Aoife O’Connell), whose range and vocal strength were impressive. Her character represented the two-faced persona of a person in a corporate role. Her human voice was far-reaching and honest; her corporate voice was robotic and mechanical. Both rang like bells.

I loved the experience, and I hated it. A triumph, as it matched the subject matter and the setting. Set in a place of transience, where people’s worlds collide and anonymity is possible, but where exposure is probable. Like the Controller’s character, the story introduced the rest of the characters’ safe and sound public faces then proceeded to expose their dark, raw underbellies. It was done with humour but that didn’t temper my alarm to watch Bill, who had just sung: ‘I’m Bill, I’m not predictable’ being shagged doggy-style by the highly-sexed Steward (Lukasz Karauda) at the end of Act II.

Thanks for the interval. I definitely needed a whisky.

The jarring nature of this opera was quelled by the warm and cosy performances, which gave this sleek production a human glow. There was so much talent on stage. You come to expect excellent vocal ability from opera singers, but the acting was especially noteworthy: each character was well-rounded, inventively individual and really contributed to the telling of the story and taking it forward, which is not easy when you’ve got to sustain the vocal demands as well. Most memorable were Kerri Lynne Deitz’ Stewardess and Francesca Aquilina’s Tina, both were flawless.

I came away with the same feelings I usually feel at the end of an opera. Glad it’s over. Glad I went. I’ll go again, but it’ll be a while.

(Leslie Herman, writer, editor, creative producer/promoter, and arts critic is a native of New York City who has been living and working in Wales for many years.)

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