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Flight

Jonathan Dove's opera in an airport is often fun but leaves no lasting impression

Reviewed by Michael Kellerman, Fri., April 15, 2011

Arts Review

Flight

Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside, 472-5992

Through April 17

Running time: 2 hr., 50 min.

Pulling off a modern opera can be tricky. With the traditional canon, there's already a built-in expectation that narrative and performance often play at odds with each other: An army approaches, and the imperiled heroine expresses her need to flee immediately by staging a drawn-out aria; or lovers finally unite but celebrate their reunion through a repetitive 15-minute duet before they embrace. This is what opera fans have come to love and expect, but it's also easier to swallow when set in a different time period.

With Flight, composer Johnathan Dove and librettist April de Angelis give the Austin Lyric Opera a piece unlike any it has performed in recent memory. A single airport terminal sets the scene. A storm strands the passengers, and a jumble of characters stories intertwine to form a commentary on love, regret, injustice, sex, and boredom.

Luckily, the creators intended most of the opera to be comedic, and on several occasions they triumph, drawing laughter from the audience. We have the horny Steward and Stewardess, played effectively by Jonathan Beyer and Patricia Risley, who react to any delay as an opportunity to, well, get it on. We have the bored suburban married couple struggling to inject some spark into their marriage, played by Jason Karn and Austin's Mela Dailey. What fun they have picking at each other – that is until Karn's character explores nocturnal infidelity with the Steward. Yes, Steward, without the "-ess."

Along with the crowd is an older, cynical woman who is waiting for a younger (likely nonexistent) fiancé. The character, played by Josepha Gayer, exists as a sort of mirror into the naivete of her fellow passengers, and Gayer's deadpan alto was spot-on. There's a pregnant married couple on their way to a diplomatic post in Minsk, Belarus, played by Texas' Craig Verm and Karin Mushegain, who separate when the wife stays back, crippled by the fear of change. Mushegain handles the ups and downs of her character's plight with steady determination and nails the part vocally with a strong, yearning performance.

The narrative action is anchored by two characters who call the terminal home. One is an airline controller, sung by Nili Riemer in a soaring but lyrically thin coloratura soprano. She keeps watch over the skies and the terminal, especially its permanent resident, the refugee. Sung in countertenor by Nicholas Zammit, the refugee was inspired by the story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived in Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport for 18 years. Zammit's countertenor was at times lovely and other times warbly and weak, but the pairing of this range with Riemer's coloratura was an effective way to draw out the differences between the cast of characters in flux and these two, ethereal and without motion, for whom the terminal is their only destination.

In the end, the narrative is wafer thin, a humorous parody of human foibles that at times alludes to Sondheim but falls short of the depth and intrigue of his work. Dove's score is solid, exciting, and fun, creating a plethora of rhythmic settings and soaring tonal melodic cells. Unfortunately, very little is done to delineate the characters musically, so at times the score seems to overshadow the vocal work.

Rather than present a new take on opera, Flight instead leans on many of the same constructs of traditional opera: suspended belief, narrative leaps (the Minsk-bound woman hops on a plane hours after giving birth?), and flights of fantasy. I have nothing wrong with this in general. Missing, though, were the other traditions that draw drama and music lovers to opera: the emotion, the virtuosity, and the artistic experience that paints something true across your sensory memory. Flight left no such impression.

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