Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Flight, a comic opera by British composer Jonathan Dove with libretto by April De Angelis, first took off in 1999, commissioned by Glyndebourne Festival Opera in England. It has done flights around the world, and has been circling the Twin Cities for the past few years, with a 2017 landing at Opera Omaha and a layover at Des Moines Metro Opera in 2018. Finally, the runway is clear to St. Paul, where Flight has touched down at the Ordway in a beautifully realized production by Minnesota Opera.
No doubt you guessed that Flight has something to do with air travel. It is set in the concourse of an unnamed city's airport (though the signage at the boarding gate is labeled MinnPost Air, a tip to a premiere online source of regional news and commentary), weaving a story from the travails of seven travelers and two flight attendants detained over a long day, through the stormy night, and into the following morning. With a sort of Grand Hotel feel, each character has his or her own intrigue, is changed by their encounters with the others, and departs, at least some of them, a bit wiser.
Dove composed Flight as a comic opera, but a second meaning for the title raises a serious and timely topic: the flight of a refugee seeking safe harbor. Having escaped a torturous past, he is trapped without documents to legally pass through the customs gates. It was inspired by the true story of Mehran Nasseri, an Iranian refugee trapped in residence at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris from 1988 to 2006. Without legal papers (he claimed they were stolen), Nasseri was unable to leave the terminal and enter France and had no proof of a country of origin to which he could legally be deported. The incident also inspired the 2004 Steven Spielberg film The Terminal. Dove and De Angelis devised a plot far less convoluted than the actual Nasseri case, and it provides a sympathetic center to Flight that makes it a lot more than the capers of fools stranded in an airport at night.
Here, the refugee is simply called Refugee. The other characters are a lonely 52-year-old woman (Older Woman), who comes to the airport each Wednesday awaiting the arrival of her "fiancé", a 22-year-old man she met at a distant resort who promised some time ago that he would be joining her "on Wednesday"; a young couple, Tina and Bill, on a mission to recharge their stale marriage at a beach resort; a couple (called Minskman and Minskwoman) headed to Minsk to accept a promotion in the diplomatic corps, though the very pregnant wife is loath to leave the solid footing of home; and a Steward and Stewardess who seize every fifteen-minute break to sneak off to a supply room for a heated quickie. Finally, there is the Flight Controller, who coolly looks down from the tower above, appalled by the goings on of these misguided travelers. She prefers the airport in the deepest hours of night whenusuallyit is people-free.
A ferocious storm causes all flights to be cancelledbut only after the Minskman boards his plane without his recalcitrant wife. She is amazed by her decision to remain, with no idea what to do next. The Older Woman's fiancé has, once again, not arrived, and Tina and Bill bicker over who is to blame for their love life losing its zip. The Stewardess welcomes a long stretch without flights in or out, to allow for a leisurely encounter with the Steward only to find that he prefers it quick and risky. All the while, the Refugee tries to avoid detection by the Immigration Officer and to persuade the preoccupied travelers to help him, resorting to bogus representations of magical totems from his native land.
The long night plays out with a barrage of unlikely escapades but manages to sort itself out, more or less, once the skies clear the next daykind of a "Mid-airport's Night Dream". Along the way we see life taken, the arrival of new life, and a couple of vivid (though discreet) sexual encounters, putting intimacy director Doug Schulz Carlson's talents to the test. Only the plight of the Refugee attests to real desperate stakes for people, stakes that cannot be resolved by an implausible plot twist.
Dove's score for Flight is marvelous, a blend of soaring, airborne rhapsodies and jaunty character-driven sections, with some extremely witty lyrics peppering the occasion. It is beautifully performed under the direction of Geoffrey MacDonald, making his Minnesota Opera debut. The duets for the Refugee and the Fight Attendant are particularly haunting as he expresses his need for people and she her preference for solitude.
Dove imbues the score with a cinematic quality that creates musical imagery. Those images are interpreted by stunning screen projections devised by David Murakami, with rolling clouds, planes taking flight, storm-racked skies, packed concourses, and the blurry pandemonium of lights providing a pulsating background for the naturalistic set designed by Dave Dunning, complete with a mezzanine level for departures and takeoffs and a glassed-in control tower above. Paul Whitaker's lighting charts the passage of the hours from day to night and back again, along with the shadows from by shifting clouds, through the window wall looking out from the terminal upon the outside world. This is an exemplary marriage of music and design.
With only ten voices, Flight is a chamber opera, but it is staged with a large cast of supers22 of themwho traipse through singly and in small groups, deplaning through the arrival gates or heading off for departures, staged to feel utterly authentic, with credit to reprisal stage director David Radames Toro. Alina Bokovikova has created a variety of costumes for this cast of supers, so as they continuously cycle through the terminal, their numbers seem even greater, with a feel for the carelessness with which air travelers increasingly dress, at one point even providing matching track suits for an athletic team traveling together. Her costumes for the principal character are spot on, from the starched efficiency of the Steward and Stewardess to the layered clothingno doubt wearing everything he ownsenrobing the Refugee.
Cortez Mitchell expresses the desperate urgency of the Refugee throughout, both in his physical bearing and the beautiful but tortured tones of his countertenor, while Katrina Galka's crystalline soprano perfectly suits her highly perched, long view into the open sky. Soprano Lisa Marie Rogali and tenor Christian Sanders are well matched as singer-actors, as Tina and Bill, and Deanne Meek completely nails her portrayal of the Older Woman, with a warm rich contralto that expresses her longing and her humiliation.
Renee Rapier applies her mezzo-soprano to convey the Minskwoman's indecisiveness. As the Minskman, Nicholas Davis has a smaller role, but his baritone delivers his sincere, stalwart nature. Completing the company, Chrystal E. Williams as the Stewardess, Christian Thurston as the Steward, and Andrew Gilstrap as the Immigration Officer all issue solid performances.
Flight is a welcome discovery, with beautiful music, a witty narrative, albeit it one that would never hold water outside of the suspended disbelief world of opera, and an empathetic and compelling depiction of who remains when those with easily obtained boarding cards in hand pass through the gates. It is sobering to recall that Flight was written before the suspicions and strictures placed on international travelers after September 11, 2001, to say nothing of the additional risks and hostility faced by a growing population of refugees all over the world under our current political climate.
Minnesota Opera serves its audience well by giving Flight a runway on which to land and surrounding it with first class amenities. Whether or not you are an opera frequent flyer, this production is thoroughly worth of your time and attention.
Flight continues through February 2, 2020, a Minnesota Opera presentation at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $153.0. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.
Music: Jonathan Dove; Libretto: April De Angelis; Conductor: Geoffrey McDonald; Production: Brian Staufenbiel; Stage Director: David Radames Toro; Scenic Design: Dave Dunning; Costume Design: Alina Bokovikova; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Projection Design: David Murakami; Hair and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Choreographer: Jennifer Mack; Intimacy Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Assistant Conductor: Andrew Whitfield; Assistant Director: Adam Da Ros; Répétiteurs: Mary Box, Allen Perriello and Andrew Sun; Stage Manager: Jamie K. Fuller.
Cast: Nicholas Davis (Minskman), Katrina Galka (Controller), Andrew Gilstrap (Immigration Officer), Deanne Meek (Older Woman), Cortez Mitchell (Refugee), Renee Rapier (Minskwoman), Lisa Marie Rogali (Tina), Christian Sanders (Bill), Christian Thurston (Steward), Chrystal E. Williams (Stewardess).