Flight represents a brave new departure for Opera Holland Park. Jonathan Dove’s tale of airport life, which first took to the skies at Glyndebourne in 1998, is the first contemporary opera to take to its main stage. OHP specializes in Italian verismo rarities that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in the capital – La Gioconda or I gioielli della Madonna or (this season) Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re – yet what we have here is not so different. Flight is a witty social comedy, but its characters are just the sort of people you’d encounter in your everyday life: modern verismo. In a striking staging with top quality musical performances, this is the best production I’ve seen from this enterprising company.

George von Bergen (Steward) and Kitty Whately (Stewardess) © Robert Workman
George von Bergen (Steward) and Kitty Whately (Stewardess)
© Robert Workman

Plotlines are simple in this slice of airport life, characters almost stereotypical. We recognise the couple wedded to their self-help manual, taking a holiday to rekindle their marriage. A diplomat is dragging his reluctant, pregnant wife to a new life in Minsk. An older woman desperately awaits the arrival of her toy-boy. A randy steward and stewardess pursue an affair. Observing passengers and flight crews coming and going are two figures: the Controller, perched in her tower, and the Refugee, trapped in the airport without papers, seeking to avoid the Immigration Officer. An electrical storm grounds all flights, throwing the characters into emotional turmoil and conflict, during which strange – and surprising – alliances are made.

What continually struck me is that Dove’s Flight is an exceptionally fine opera. The vivid, tonal score contains hints of several composers from Britten to Bernstein and Copland, jostling with minimalism and infectious Latin-American rhythms. Glistening harp and percussion feature prominently, xylophones and glockenspiels whirr and motor and chime. Brad Cohen led a rhythmically alert City of London Sinfonia, alive to the dramatic pacing of the score. April De Angelis’ libretto is a delight, especially the exuberant septet of Rossinian tongue-twisting brilliance – anyone using the rhymes “falafels” and “camels” gets my stamp of approval.

<i>Flight</i> at Opera Holland Park © Robert Workman
Flight at Opera Holland Park
© Robert Workman

Andrew Riley utilises the widescreen panoramic stage brilliantly to create a typically faceless departure lounge, over which the Controller presides. Three lift doors open and close – to reveal increasingly athletic sexual shenanigans in one case – and subtle video effects create the weather conditions. Seating, a duty-free trolley and a departures board complete the set. Stephen Barlow directs with precision and a keen eye for developing each of the characters beyond stereotypes. Thus, we feel pangs of pity for all their predicaments and the finale, where the Refugee reveals his story, is genuinely upsetting. When is the last time you shed a tear at an opera for a character that never even appears on stage?

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Bill), Lucy Schaufer (Older Woman) and Ellie Laugharne (Tina) © Robert Workman
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Bill), Lucy Schaufer (Older Woman) and Ellie Laugharne (Tina)
© Robert Workman

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect cast. Kitty Whately and George von Bergen, both in rich voice, were comedy gold as the flight crew, struggling to suppress their carnal desires for each other behind insincere smiles at the passengers. Lucy Schaufer’s firm tone, clear diction and touching vulnerability made the Older Woman a sympathetic figure rather than a figure of fun. Ellie Laugharne’s creamy, lyric soprano was well-suited to Tina, while Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts supplied the required hefty tenor for Bill, who ends up in a very unexpected tryst indeed! Victoria Simmonds’ warm mezzo impressed as the ‘Minskwoman’, prevaricating so much that she misses her flight. Her husband, who does board that flight but returns for her on the next one, has less stage-time than many, yet Nicholas Garrett sang one of the opera’s finest solos, “Everything’s going to be fine” with panache and authority. John Savournin was a sturdy, but sympathetic Immigration Officer.

Jennifer France (The Controller) © Robert Workman
Jennifer France (The Controller)
© Robert Workman

Two performances stood out. Jennifer France made the Controller’s stratospheric coloratura sound easy, floating notes effortlessly to every corner of the Holland Park canopy. James Laing’s countertenor was phenomenally beautiful to listen to as the Refugee. He projected with great power, but his soft singing – especially his narration towards the opera’s end – had an ethereal beauty.

With such a uniformly strong cast under Barlow’s astute direction, Flight provides first class entertainment.