★★★★ FLIGHT, SCOTTISH OPERA Poignant and powerful, this production soars
Inspired by the astonishing true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian refugee who lived in Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years, Jonathan Dove’s Flight is a humorous, touching, uplifting yet profoundly poignant study into human relationships, interactions and emotions. This is opera buffa for the modern age – relevant, relatable, lighthearted and often downright silly, but still revealing some very pertinent truths. Stephen Barlow’s slick production, first seen in an outdoor setting at Opera Holland Park in 2015, is transported to Glasgow's Theatre Royal by Scottish Opera, its single set serving as a perfect backdrop for the claustrophobic inertia of an airport terminal.
The beginning of Act 1 sees the airport in the very early hours of the morning, capturing the dreamy, ethereal stillness of a world on the brink of awakening. Soprano Jennifer France, as the God-like controller, alone in her tower, sings with a stunning clarity, giving the role a balanced fusion of dominance with serenity, as James Laing’s Refugee stares up at her in awe (the two pictured below). As the airport springs into life, the Scottish Opera Orchestra is on tremendous form, colouring Dove’s vivid, witty score. The chimes of an airport announcement are emulated from tuned percussion and scurrying strings create an air of busyness, of the bustling energy of people in transit.
They say you see it all in an airport – the full spectrum of human emotion, people of all creeds and colours, from all walks and stages of life. Our passengers here all have their own stories, their reasons to be in the airport. There are Tina and Bill, a married couple looking to reignite their passion for each other on holiday, a diplomat and his pregnant wife off to start a new life in Minsk, an older lady patiently waiting for her younger lover, and of course, the refugee, who witnesses these arrivals and departures day in, day out. A perhaps unlikely bunch of travelling companions, these passengers are forced to band together, as an electrical storm indefinitely grounds all flights.
The set returns to darkness for the beginning of Act 2, and in the bleak, gloomy airport, there’s room for emotions to distill and intensify, as cabin fever forces a spotlight on each character’s thoughts and desires. Even the controller shows she is human too as she steps down from her lofty tower, wandering the stage, downcast, cigarette in hand. Mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds, making her Scottish Opera debut as the Minskwoman, gives an achingly beautiful performance in the aria "I bought this suitcase in New York", as the character ponders her fears over the changes about to befall her; moving to a new country, motherhood, departing the life she knows.
As the storm rages, Richard Howell’s clever lighting design heightens the panic and confusion, and the rambunctious lower brass rumblings from the pit convey the frenzy of the outside elements. The characters on stage too descend into chaos. The women raid the drinks trolley, and there’s definitely a layered meaning to Bill and the air steward’s cries of "I’m so high" when they take a trip up to the control tower. It’s during the storm, this strange period of fear and uncertainty, that the passengers begin to warm to the refugee, before viciously turning on him, showing the true colours of society’s fickle attitudes towards those desolate and in need.
Dawn breaks after the storm, and Act 3 begins with rousing, majestic peals of brass, as the terminal is bathed in light. Flights resume, and everyone can get on with their plans. Everyone, that is, except the refugee. Laing’s portrayal of the Refugee’s account of his journey is chillingly stirring, as he sings with impeccable vocal control against a backdrop of quivering strings.
This is a marvellous production, and the synergy between cast members is uniformly sound. Ensemble pieces are delivered with gorgeous vocal blending (seven of the cast pictured above), and Dove’s comic timing is expertly precise. From the pit, the orchestra, under the baton of Stuart Stratford, is resplendent throughout, illuminating the many layers of Dove’s music with dazzling shine.