After Stephen Barlow’s winning production for Opera Holland Park – a recent triumph at Scottish Opera despite a couple of performances being grounded by snow – it was wonderful to experience this work again in a smart staging by Martin Duncan. Francis O’Connor’s two-tiered set provides a spartan departure lounge which the Controller oversees and comments on from her elevated position, with video screen backdrop offering fluffy clouds and runway flight simulations. Paper aeroplanes dart across the stage and the new theatre’s fly tower allows a giant wheel to descend as a plane lands. When all flights are cancelled due to an electrical storm – chaos is depicted by the passengers’ open suitcases dangling in mid-air. It does the job perfectly.
The cast and situations are familiar: the couple hoping sun, sand and sex will rekindle their relationship; the middle-aged woman waiting for her 22-year old fiancé (a bartender she met in Majorca); the diplomat and his heavily pregnant wife relocating to Minsk; the randy steward and stewardess who need little excuse to scuttle off for a tryst in the airport lift. Arguments ensue and alliances are made, not least when Bill, desperate to prove to his wife that “I’m not predictable”, enjoys a frenzied sexual encounter with the male steward “We’re so high!”).
Royal Academy Opera fields two casts in this run and on opening night there wasn’t a weak link. Hannah Poulsom’s terrific mezzo made the most of the Minskwoman’s ‘Suitcase aria’ and brought the on-stage birth off hilariously. Richard Walshe, as her husband who leaves for Minsk without her only to return in Act 3, gets some of the opera’s most powerful musical moments, his firm baritone riding the lines of “Everything’s going to be fine” with ease. Olivia Warburton and Nicholas Mogg turned from corporate plastic smiles to lusting colleagues at the flick of a switch, while Marvic Monreal’s Older Woman, seeking to be inconspicuous, rejoiced in her one-liners: “If anyone asks me where I’m going, I’ll speak French… fromage, café, Veuve Clicquot”.
This is all set to Dove’s incredibly catchy score, with its hints of Copland’s open skies and Bernstein’s jazzy riffs and waggish word-setting, the ensemble rejoicing in the pleasure of holiday escapism – a delightful tongue-twister featuring pina coladas, falafels and camels – carried off with real panache, with Gareth Hancock drawing precise playing from the battery of percussion in the pit.
Yet behind the airport comedy facade, there’s a poignant story to be told: that of the Refugee, trapped without passport and papers, constantly evading the Immigration Officer. It’s based on fact, the case of Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who spent 18 years living in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport (he’d only been there 10 years when Dove wrote his opera). The Refugee worships the Controller, but she is a distant presence, aloof, envious of the relationships he strikes up with the passengers.
In the casting of countertenor and stratospheric soprano, Dove nods at Oberon and Tytania in Britten’s Dream, another relationship in crisis. In a superb all-round cast, Patrick Terry’s Refugee and Ilona Revolskaya’s Controller still stood out – possibly down to the high-wire acrobatics of the vocal writing. Terry’s countertenor is smooth and tender, especially when he learns that his brother has died – “a frozen man falling like a frozen star” – in his attempt for freedom. Russian soprano Revolskaya – who impressed in last year’s Orpheus in the Underworld – soared above the stave with pinpoint accuracy and fearsome attack. She’s a Zerbinetta in the making and begins a contract at Theater an der Wien next season. Soprano-spotters, keep an eye out for Revolskaya… the sky’s the limit.