Jonathan Dove’s Flight is an opera that makes excellent use of setting. Inspired by a true story of an Iranian refugee, it takes place in an airport—the emotionally charged space where people are constantly departing and arriving. Here, in this amorphous, liminal zone, travelers move forward—excited, scared, nervous—leaving behind past identities and former attachments; and yet, they are also always arriving, entering into new understandings of the self—what they love, what they long for, and what they value.
Through this setting, Dove’s opera riffs on some compelling questions: who did I use to be? Who am I? And who am I going to be? These concerns are embodied through the central figure of the Refugee, a young man seeking asylum within the airport, unable to leave due to legal and bureaucratic constraints. While he awaits his fate in the airport lounge, his perception grants the audience access to the ongoing emotional, psychological, and physical turmoil various travelers are experiencing: an old woman awaiting her shockingly young fiancé; a married couple trying to reinvigorate their love life through a holiday; an over-sexed pair of stewards; a young pregnant woman facing relocation to Minsk due to her husband’s diplomatic career; and the airport’s controller, who serves as a kind of foil to the Refugee.
Attending this unnamed refugee is an aura of the magical. He is a dreamy, fey figure, scored for the otherworldly sound of a countertenor. While the various passengers in the airport terminal are stranded due to an electrical storm, the Refugee offers each a “magic stone,” which he claims will allow them to manifest their deepest desires.
Dove’s score reflects the surreal, dreamy libretto by April de Angelis. Melodic, emotionally urgent, and sincere, the score soars through various subjectivities, revealing the inner-workings of its characters with compassion and humor. Always dangerously on the edge of sentimentality, the opera fortunately never veers into easy answers—ending, thankfully, on a note of acute ambivalence.
The production at Juilliard, directed by James Darrah, capitalizes on the mystical elements embedded in the score’s DNA. The proceedings are not rooted in reality, but in the world of dream, feverish and romantic; and Darrah constructs the performance as a kind of meditation on key themes, rather than as a straightforward, linear narrative. As such, he indulges the interior desires of his characters, moving them through various states of fantastic physicality.
The set, as well, reflects the score’s psychology. It resembles, as a matter of course, an airport lounge; however, it is not at all realistic, with futuristic, austere lines—and the backdrop is a projection of an ever-shifting sky, dappled with clouds and sunlight.
While one might contextualize a conservatory performance within the safe space of education (where the freedom to fail allows one to grow and evolve as an artist), the students at Juilliard undertake their work as if they are seasoned professionals. In fact, it is difficult to locate a weak link in the ensemble.
As the Refugee, Jakub Jósef Orlinski, has a charming, impish quality to him, which serves his fantastical presence within the opera. His countertenor sounds promising and secure. As the airport controller, Rebecca Farley demonstrates a fine, flexible soprano that manages the stratospheric demands of the role’s tessitura. These two make an effective pair, balancing each other well.
The passengers are also all impressive for their commitment and vocal dexterity. Of special note is Natalia Kutateladze as the pregnant Minkswoman. Her act two aria, in which she questions the contents of her luggage, and the woman she has become, demonstrates a broad intelligence and compassion. Her singing during this poignant moment is clear and alluring, allowing for the situation’s full pathos and wonder to bloom.
Mathew Swenson’s Bill is a refreshing and surprising creation; he manages the unexpected twists in his character’s development with ease. Where others might falter in the role, Swenson’s commitment to the drama allows the audience to not only believe the veracity of his character, but to also follow him on a rather shocking journey.
Moreover, Amanda Lynn Bottoms is a remarkably funny Older Woman. And while her character can easily slip into maudlin, campy shtick, Bottoms keeps her performance fresh and alive through unexpected spontaneity. Also, her mezzo-soprano is rich and in-tune.
Steven Osgood helms the Juilliard Orchestra, and he urges his musicians through the soaring score. Dove’s music ultimately serves as the most impressive aspect of the evening, creating a wonderful world, full of mythic possibilities within the quotidian and banal. This transforming aspect reminds us again and again of the possibilities inherent to everyday experiences—that we are always leaving and arriving, and never staying the same.
Photo credit: Rosalie O’Connor