Sunday, May 2, 2010

A soaring operatic Flight

UCLA students mount stunning production of contemporary English opera of manners

photo: David Schneiderman

Flight, an opera in three acts
Music by Jonathan Dove, Libretto by April de Angelis
UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture
-- Herb Alpert School of Music (Opera and Philharmonia)
School of Theater, Film & Television (Theater)
Freud Playhouse, University of California at Los Angeles
Friday, April 30, 2010 (Additional performances: May 1 & 2)

Review by Rodney Punt

The opera Flight, which received its West Coast premiere at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse last Friday, tells the curious story of an undocumented refugee trapped in an airport terminal with a Grand Hotel-like collection of passengers in transit. If the plot set-up seems familiar, you might have encountered it in the Steven Spielberg film The Terminal. Both film and opera were based on the same true story, but the opera version preceded the movie by some six years.

Flight’s production was impressively polished and sophisticated, all the more commendable because, with the exception of the work's opening conductor, a single tenor in the cast and a harpist in the orchestra, it was entirely designed, directed, performed, and crewed by the students of UCLA’s Opera, Theater, and Philharmonia programs (see above for their respective schools).

Written for and premiered at the Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1998 (with a main stage Glyndebourne Opera premiere a year later), it is the collaboration of two English artists, composer Jonathan Dove and dramatist-librettist April de Angelis, who uncannily caught the zeitgeist of contemporary Euro-American manners on the eve of game-changing acts of terrorism set to strike the USA three years later. That it takes place at an airport and involves a refugee of vague national origin seems eerily prescient.

De Angelis’s cleverly rhymed libretto takes its cues from sources as varying as Theater of the Absurd, Seinfeldian sit-com moments “about nothing”, and Shakespearean forays into confused identity. Each of the three acts proffers a different emotional climate, fully exploited in Dove’s musical treatment.

Dove is the kind of composer who gives eclecticism a good name. Obvious influences in this opera were a John Adams already beyond Minimalist purity, Leonard Bernstein’s glittering musicals, Benjamin Britten’s atmospheric scene painting, and Leoš Janáček's psychological music dramas.

Call Dove a third-generation Minimalist, but he adheres to no musical boundaries, setting the evolving drama with such dexterity that his disparate style sources seamlessly cohere. He has also a gifted man-of-the-theater's ability to write vocal lines that both define character and are lovely and memorable of themselves.

Early on in this opera, crisp but vacuous Minimalist orchestral pulses establish the soulless feel of the airline terminal and the artificial façades of its passengers. Novel orchestral effects abound throughout the scintillating score. To cite but two: a percussion-with-celesta mixture that mimics the sappy chimes of public interiors; and the wheezing, snap-crackling storm music of Act II, some of the best such since Britten’s sea operas.

The beginning of the last act flirts with, but just avoids, the sticky sentimentality of Bernstein’s more mawkish moments, partly induced by the sag of a too-pat resolution of theatrical tension built up in the first two acts. Fortunately, both drama and musical score regain poise at the end with an enigmatic moment of parting grace.

Director James Darrah establishes an initial theatrical tone of absurdist efficiency. As the characters shed their pretenses, he shifts the tone by subtle degrees to a darker, and later yet a warmer human realism. Supporting this concept is Ellen Lenbergs’ stunning unit set, sleek and modish, suggestive of a chirpy but empty optimism. Lighting décor by Cameron Mock and projections by Veronica L. Lancaster reinforce the sanitized atmosphere of the terminal. The scheme will prove flexible enough to allow a change of mood to more emotionally charged hues later on. David Crawford’s sound design includes, among other effects, a hyper-realistic microphone reverb for the Controller’s disembodied public announcements. Sarah Schuessler's costumes underpin character stereotypes throughout.

Conductor Neal Stulberg’s control of the student musical forces (one harpist was professional due to illness) kept the pace moving at quicksilver tempi, with exceptional precision, balance and clarity within the score's lexicon of timbres and rhythms. The confidence level of the singers must have been high on Friday night, as the production’s vocalism was uniformly secure and its theatrical timing impeccable in a tricky, mercurial score. Rakefet Hak had supplied the earlier vocal coaching. (Conductor and DMA candidate Henry Shin was set to replace Stulberg for the final performance.)

Nicholas Zammit’s bright countertenor captured the essence of the otherworldly, seemingly helpless but strangely influential Refugee, who is beloved, scorned, and eventually redeemed by the other passengers.

Ashley Knight’s lustrous high soprano was taken early on to a stratospheric F above high C, a peak she easily achieved while projecting the unflappable coolness of character she inhabits as the Controller.

Ashley Knight with Julian Arsenault and Lauren Edwards
photo: David Schneiderman

Soprano Lisa Hendrickson as Tina, and (non-UCLA professional) tenor Bradley Wisk as Bill, conveyed both vocal vigor and theatrical chemistry, whether in or out of their tense marital relationship.

Lisa Hendrickson-----------------------------photo: David Schneiderman

Mezzo Tracy Cox’s Older Woman demonstrated both vocal strength and dramatic vulnerability as the lonely-hearts lady deluding herself but no one else.

Mezzo Lauren Edwards’ Stewardess and baritone Julian Arsenault’s Steward sizzled as the oversexed occupiers of service uniforms they had trouble keeping on.

Baritone Mario Chae and mezzo Abigail Villalta proved strong-voiced and plangent as Minskman and his wife momentarily separated as a crisis loomed.

Bass-baritone Sergey Khalikulov had his effective moment in the sun as the relenting authority figure that allows the Refugee to live on in his strange terminal purgatory.

Sergey Khalikulov and Nicholas Zammit---photo: David Schneiderman

The LA Opera’s current production of Wagner’s Ring continues to create artistic waves. Just over a week ago, the USC Thornton School of Music gave Los Angeles a terrific West Coast premiere of Wagner’s early opera, Das Liebesverbot, as part of the citywide Ring Festival LA.

Not in the least intimidated, UCLA’s music and theater programs have combined in this production to answer the challenge of their traditional cross-town rival with their own West Coast premiere, a soaring Flight.

Los Angeles, once an operatic backwater, now looks like Opera Central USA. --- World, take note.


Plot synopsis of Flight:

Act I opens in a nameless airline terminal. As a flight Controller goes about her business, a refugee with no documentation avoids the nearby Immigration Officer. Passengers wait for their departures, projecting veneers of brittle normalcy. A couple, Bill and Tina, are off on holiday to regain the spark of their marriage. An Older Woman, in disguise, awaits her “fiancé.” A Steward and a Stewardess brazenly explore each other’s physicality. The diplomat Minskman departs; his pregnant wife at the last minute decides to remain. The Controller announces all other planes are delayed indefinitely due to bad weather.

Act II has the nighttime storm worsening as the facades that veil the passengers’ lives dissolve. Bill unexpectedly encounters the Steward and decides to “venture up to the heights” with him sexually. The Controller, a la King Lear, confronts the storm. The helpless but strangely influential Refugee interacts with the women by offering a “magic stone.” Each thinks hers unique and will resolve her problems. When the women begin drinking together, they realize they all have a stone and violently attack the Refugee as a fraud, stuffing his apparently lifeless form in a trunk.

Act III is dawn after the storm. Minskman’s wife gives birth, uniting the passengers in a purposeful activity. The Minskman returns to rejoin his wife. The various original couples, transformed in the light of day, forgive and forget. Initially hesitant, the passengers and the Controller intercede, on behalf of the now revived Refugee, with the Immigration Officer who decides to “turn a blind eye” on him. The passengers and workers depart, leaving only the Controller and the Refugee for one last enigmatic encounter.

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