Opera Parallèle takes wing again
In the quiet hours of the airport, after most have flown off to destinations known and unknown, the Controller sings with the Refugee. Beginning with soaring vocalese, soprano Nikki Einfeld and countertenor Tai Oney meet in some solitary musical space between earth and sky. They pose the question, “Who needs people?”
Thus opens Opera Parallèle’s elegant production of Jonathan Dove’s Flight, with libretto by April De Angelis. The opera is based on the real life event of Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived in the departures lounge of Terminal One at Charles De Gaulle airport from 1988 to 2006. As unbelievable as that may sound.
The opera was originally commissioned by the UK’s wonderful Glyndebourne Opera in 1998, and first performed by the touring arm of the internationally renowned opera group Glyndebourne Tour, which travels throughout the UK bringing opera to regional centers. The topic is relevant to the current global crisis, but it’s hard to imagine that this version of the opera could have been written in today’s politically fraught moment.
The opera is described as a comedy, and it takes a wry look at the denizens of an airport, though Dove’s beautifully orchestrated score leans to the lyric throughout, rather than the comic. His most moving segments are those between the Controller and the Refugee, each of whom have a magical persona within the drama. The Controller as a kind of overseeing goddess and the Refugee as a benign spirit who provides both comfort and magic to the anxious travelers.
Those travellers come in pairs. There is the married couple (Chaz’men Williams-Ali and Amina Edris) that is trying to re-ignite the romance of their life together by traveling back in time to the honeymoon romance of their first get-away together. There is the slightly deranged middle-aged woman (Catherine Cook with a real knack for physical comedy) who is waiting for the young (invisible) fiancé she has never met to arrive and change her lonely life. There is the diplomat and his pregnant wife (Eugene Brancoveanu and Renée Rapier), who are on their way to Minsk to embark on his next career move. She, however, balks: Minsk, she sings, is very flat. And there are the flight stewards (Maya Yahav Gour and Hadleigh Adams) who are looking for a discreet nook in the airport where they can serve each other a little bam-bam in the ham.
The libretto moves quickly and episodically between these couples and their anxieties. The Refugee’s anxiety is that he will be found by the Immigration Officer (Philip Skinner), but in the meantime he provides comfort for the travelers, advising them to concentrate their fears on a little stone and that all will be well.
The score is brilliantly sung by all, both in individual arias and in the ensembles. But there is something especially exquisite in the duets between the stratospheric and crystalline quality of Controller Nikki Einfeld’s soprano and Refugee Tai Oney’s warm and full countertenor. It’s a match made in heaven.
The Refugee’s final long aria about how he came to be in the airport is a deeply moving tribute to any refugee’s sense of loss – of family and of home – so devastating that the individual teeters of the brink of losing their sense of place within the world.
Maestra Nicole Paiement led a fantastic team in one of the lusher instrumental scores for a smaller ensemble, with 29 musicians, composed of the finest new music instrumentalists in the Bay Area. And Brian Stauffenbiel stage-directed the cast in a complex two-levels-with-staircase set, with seeming hordes of supernumeraries winding their traveling ways across the stage. The set designer was David Dunning and costumes were by Alina Bokovikova. Designer David Murakami created the media background viewed through the airport windows, where planes and a fairy-tale smoke merged and twirled.
You can always count on this company’s directors to present a to-die-for production. They remain treasures for the Bay Area and for contemporary opera itself. They present operas that are fresh and meaningful to today’s audience, and that are humane in their understanding of the connection between artistic endeavor and audience.
The pity is that only one weekend of three performances is usually all that is available for opera- and theater-goers. This reviewer hopes that will change some day, as more viewers get hip to the delights of attending and enjoying an Opera Paralléle production.
— Jaime Robles
Photo: Flight stewards Maya Yahav Gour and Haleigh Adams serve the Refugee Tai Oney in Opera Parallele’s production of Jonathan Dove’s contemporary opera, Flight. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo.