Jonathan Dove’s Flight takes its inspiration from the events surrounding Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s expulsion from Iran for protesting the Shah in 1977. Nasseri was awarded refugee status by the UN, and decided to settle in the UK in 1988 where he allegedly had a parent. Traveling to London via France, Nasseri lost his papers, and was returned to Charles de Gaulle. As he could not return to Iran, and lacking the necessary papers to gain entry into France, Nasseri spent the next 17 years living in Terminal 1 of the airport, finally obtaining release in 2006. Dove’s opera is one in a long list of documentaries and films inspired by Nasseri, (including Stephen Spielberg’s 2004 Terminal featuring Tom Hanks). For Dove, it is not Nasseri that we see stuck at a terminal, but an unnamed refugee suffering at the hands of authorities and passing travelers.
Boston Conservatory’s production of Flight on Thursday evening at the Boston Conservatory Theater was conspicuously absent of political commentary, save for a brief note in the program. Regardless, the ensemble’s funny, yet deeply affecting message regarding the fate, or lack thereof, of displaced peoples could not have come at a more germane time: Flight’s opening night coincided with approval of a bill by the House of Representatives requiring stronger background checks on Syrian refugees entering the United States. Watching Thursday evening’s performance, it was impossible not to draw the obvious parallels between the opera and displaced peoples today.
Dove’s opera, a collaboration with librettist April DeAngelis, premiered with the Glyndebourne Traveling Opera Company in 1998 and received its professional world premiere on the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s mainstage the following year. Despite the serious nature at the heart of Flight, the two and a half hour-long piece is also very funny: a small group of travelers are gathered at a UK airport, including Bill and Tina (a young couple trying to revitalize their marriage), a diplomat and his pregnant wife, an older woman awaiting the arrival of her 22-year-old fiancé, a host of officials, and the refugee at the heart of the work; histrionics ensue, love triangles are formed, then broken, and characters undergo transformations and realizations before leaving for their final destinations.
As directed by Jonathan Pape, Flight certainly manages quite a few laughs, but is balanced by a political message that is frequently heavy handed: at one point, the refugee begs for help from the gathered travelers in trying to flee from a government official, only to be met with a stoic, unwavering “We can’t help you”; in another scene, the women of the cast knock the refugee unconscious by hurling stones he had given them as gifts. The work offers much outside of the political arena, however—in fact, the opera garners much of its emotional impact from the personal dramas that the characters are faced with. In one scene, the pregnant diplomat’s wife reflects on her impending motherhood, on how she has come to this point, and whether it is for the good; in another scene, the air traffic controller desperately accuses the man she loves of not being faithful; at the close of the opera, the refugee reveals, in moving detail, how he came to the UK airport. The opera details a series of personal realizations and triumphs among strangers, much of which is very funny, some of which is strikingly poignant; DeAngelis’ fundamental story, however, is based off a tragic reversal: the refugee, a homeless “transient person” in the strictest sense of the words, is the only constant in a drama in which transience is embodied by travelers who only spend a short amount of time passing through his terminal.
Dove’s score, set for strings, harp, percussion, winds, and brass, illustrates the libretto beautifully, employing an easily accessible, deeply satisfying tonal palette. Central to the music is a “flight” motif—a soaring soundscape replete with extended legato lines—but this idea is interspersed with rhythmically complex minimalist bursts. At other times, the score is a compilation of ambient airport sounds (stylized PA-announcement alarms, airplanes lifting off, or—my favorite—orchestrated Muzak). In rarer moments, Flight delves deep into dance music of the jazz-era, affably illustrating the many slapstick moments of the opera. Vocally, the musical lines follow suit, but frequently are abstracted from the themes of the orchestration rising above in treacherous atonal melodies, frequently slipping from music into richly inflected Sprechstimme. The gallimaufry of these disparate elements is delightfully disorienting, but always in service of the story. Under the direction of Andrew Altenbach, the student orchestra of BoCo, provided ample support for the considerable score, although sometimes overwhelming the voices.
BoCo’s staging, designed by Peter Waldron, features a richly designed interior of an airport terminal. A floor to ceiling video screen occupies the majority of the stage, onto which are projected images of the tarmac on which significant events take place—the arrival and departure of various flights, or—most impressively—an electric storm that gathers at the end of the first act and persists throughout the second act. Costumes were also tastefully conceived. Characters were dressed in contemporary clothing, thoughtfully paired with their personality and role. This set design worked well with DeAngelis’s libretto, which encompasses the audience in a complete world filled with vividly-drawn characters and engrossing storylines.
Thursday’s performance featured a strong cast in an engaging performance. Ensemble work, especially among the upper voices were blended well and displayed a good balance. Individual performances made Thursday’s Flight a resounding success: countertenor Rudy Gíron, in the role of the refugee, sang with a clear tone that dipped into in a startlingly confident and well-shaped baritone. Soprano Isabella Lamadriz, playing the role of air traffic controller, although tentative at first, came into the brilliant pyrotechnics of the part with agility, accessing the extremes of her voice with seeming ease. Eric Ferring’s heroic tenor has an unshakeable core that brings a bold precision and control to his substantial sound. Soprano Lauren Cook’s (Tina) full but nuanced soprano and the rich, and effortless baritone from Tyler Wolowicz (Steward) formed particularly pairings with Ferring. Stewardess Michaela Wolz has a radiant soprano that fared well in both solo and ensemble pieces.
The evening’s most memorable roles, however, were performed by mezzo-sopranos Abigail Dock (the diplomat’s pregnant wife) and Rachel Barg (playing the older woman awaiting her 22-year-old fiancé). Dock’s dark soprano sprang effortlessly into her higher notes, but was moving strong when plummeting deep into a brassy contralto, particularly when paired with a mournful portrayal of a wife on the verge of motherhood. As comic foil, Barg, whose well-rounded voice has the ability to blossom into a well-controlled vibrato, embodied the role of a jaded 52-year-old divorcee two times over who simultaneously managed to be girlishly excited about her new, young fiancé while constantly reminding the travelers about the substantial limits of romantic love. Thursday’s cast also included Andrew O’Shanick as the diplomat, and Simon Dyer as the immigration officer.
BoCo’s production of Flight continues through the weekend; Thursday evening’s cast will return on Saturday evening. The program is performed with an alternate cast on Friday and Sunday, featuring Bryan Pollock (Refugee), Natalie Logan (flight controller), Frederick Schlick (Bill), Samantha Schmid (Tina), Tzytle Steinman (Stewardess), Andrew Miller (Steward), Maya Pardo (Older Woman), Zachary Mallory (diplomat), Gabriella Reyes (diplomat’s wife), and Sam Filson Parkinson (Immigration officer).