Tuesday 20 April 2021

Flight at the museum: Seattle Opera's new film imaginatively re-locates Jonathan Dove's opera

Jonathan Dove: Flight - Damien Geter, Randall Scotting - Seattle Opera (Photo Philip Newton)
Jonathan Dove: Flight - Damien Geter, Randall Scotting - Seattle Opera (Photo Philip Newton)

Jonathan Dove Flight; Randall Scotting, Sharleen Joynt, Joshua Kohl, Karen Vuong, Margaret Gawrysiak, Sarah Larsen, Joseph Lattanzi, Aubrey Allicock, Karin Mushegain, Damien Gieter, Brian Staufenbiel, Viswa Subbaraman; Seattle Opera

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 April 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Still contemporary and still engaging, this new film of Dove's opera from Seattle neatly relocates the production to The Museum of Flight

Jonathan Dove and April de Angelis' opera Flight might be well on its way to its 25th birthday (it premiered in 1998) but its themes remain those which trouble us today. Most of the stories told in the opera revolve around looking for love and negotiating the complexities of relationships, and for all the dated elements in De Angelis' text, she and Dove brilliantly sketch in the characters, mixing poignancy with comedy. At the centre of all this is the Refugee, living in the airport lounge, trapped in immigration limbo and awaiting a brother who, tragically, will never come.

Since the opera was written, immigration and migration have become political hot potatoes all over the world from boats arriving at Greek islands to migrant camps at Calais to the USA/Mexican border. The new production of Flight from Seattle Opera doesn't labour the point, simply presenting the opera resonates in so many ways. The venue for Seattle's new film also resonates. The Museum of Flight presents a superb stand-in for the airport terminal setting, yet even here there are other resonances because a screen at the opening of the film tells us that the museum was built on the homelands of Native American peoples, so we have another layer of refugees and migration.

Seattle Opera was supposed to be staging Flight, but instead have imaginatively opted to film. Seattle Opera's production of Jonathan Dove's Flight was filmed at The Museum of Flight, directed by Brian Staufenbiel, conducted Viswa Subbaraman, with Randall Scotting, Refugee, Sharleen Joynt, Controller, Joshua Kohl, Bill, Karen Vuong, Tina, Margaret Gawrysiak, Older Woman, Sarah Larsen, Stewardess, Joseph Lattanzi, Steward, Aubrey Allicock Minskman, Karen Mushegain, Minskwoman and Damien Geter, Immigration Officer. With the film directed and edited by Kyle Seago. It is available from 23 to 25 April 2021, with early access for subscribers.

Jonathan Dove: Flight - Margaret Gawrysiak, Karen Vuong - Seattle Opera (Photo Philip Newton)
Jonathan Dove: Flight - Margaret Gawrysiak, Karen Vuong - Seattle Opera (Photo Philip Newton)

This is very much a film, not a filmed stage production, as it opens up the opera and plays with the spaces available at The Museum of Flight. Most stage productions of the opera take place on a single, stylised set but here the opera opens in heightened realism. Yet it is never realistic and for much of Act One I was rather too aware of the vast, empty spaces of the building; if this was an airport, then it was very empty. And this disjunct continued as you noticed the way the characters were safely spaced and distanced, lovers never touched. It was all imaginatively done, but the drama really took off at the moments when realism was abandoned, when clever camerawork and imaginative intercutting and editing did the work of what, in the theatre in normal times, would have been highly physical ensembles.

There was a strong cast of young singers each of whom grasped the opportunities that Dove and De Angelis give them. For all the comedy (and there was plenty of that), the nub of the opera is a series of touching revelations and short voyages of self-discovery. At the heart was Randall Scotting's Refugee, singing with a warm, focused and fluid tone he projected a touching naivety which, as the play with the magic stones developed, you realised was a persona, there was a craftiness there too. Yet at the end, Scotting wrenched our heart muscles with the scene where he narrates how he got there and tragedy with his brother.

Sharleen Joynt's Controller had claws. Joynt's control of the coloratura was effortless, but this wasn't a lovely canary, she brought out the real edge to the character making her neurotic, controlling and simply not very nice. It was a brilliant performance, and the only element that I missed was out of Joynt's control. Because of the way it was filmed (the Controller was in her own control tower) she and Scotting's Refugee were never in the same space at the same time, we never actually saw him looking at her.

As the young married couple, Tina and Bill, who are hoping to put some spice back into their relationship, Karen Vuong and Joshua Kohl brought a practised ease to the couple's sniping at each other with Kohl showing deft comic timing with the 'wrong trousers' sequence. His partner in this was Joseph Lattanzi's Steward, perhaps coming over as a little too clean-cut but Lattanzani and Sarah Larsen's Stewardess neatly captured the characters' sitcom nature, whilst breaking out of this box as well got to know them more. 

Aubrey Allicock and Karen Mushegain were the couple travelling to Minsk, he all bright optimism and she doubts. This led to one of the opera's most touching yet complex scenes as Mushegain's Minskwoman articulated the doubts and despair that came with pregnancy, an example of the way De Angelis' text brings poetic realism into the comic setups. And Allicock got his moment too, when his character returned and struggled to articulate how much he missed his wife.

The Older Woman is the character that remains closest to stereotype, but Margaret Gawrysiak made the character's one-liners really count, and was rather touching in the revelations of her being self-deluding. Making up the cast was Damien Geter as a strong but silent Immigration Officer. 

Dove's imaginative orchestral writing makes the orchestra almost as much of a character, and the filmic nature of this was particularly emphasised here, in such terrific moments as the plane taking off, though at other times the nature of the film medium meant that there was a danger of the orchestral part being reduced to a sound-track.

We will probably never know what Seattle Opera's staging of Flight would have been like, but this film was a deft solution to the problem. It makes imaginative use of the available resource in the museum, and fielded a strong and characterful ensemble cast who definitely brought out the opera's combination of comedy and pathos.

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