Marooning a random set of people in an enclosed space and forcing them to confront themselves is a well-proven successful theatrical premise, as characters have back-stories to get out and emerge changed by the experience. Trapping his cast in the pressure cooker of an airport shut by the weather overnight, composer Jonathan Dove and librettist April De Angelis gently turn up the tension as an electrical storm rages. The RSAMD opera students in Glasgow gave Flight its Scottish Premiere in 2006, so it was fascinating to return to see what the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland cast and crew would make of this now firmly established modern classic, recently performed by Scottish Opera in 2018 in a run which was, oh the irony, plagued by closed airports and roads in its transfer to Edinburgh.

Jonathan Forbes Kennedy (Steward) and Charlotte Richardson (Stewardess)
© Robert McFadzean | RCS

Even the background to this show has its own story. Originally scheduled for 2020, RCS approached Dove asking him to apply his orchestral reduction skills to his own work for just the 19 players who could legally fit into the pit. A new score arrived within a month. Changing rules cancelled that performance, but happily this new version was able to be performed by 32 players with RCS inviting singers back who missed out on performing full live shows during their studies, with five roles double cast here for the short run.  

Composed in 1998, the opera was inspired by the true tale of protestor Mehran Karimi Nasseri who spent years in limbo, permitted to live in Charles de Gaulle Airport but legally prevented from leaving the building. Dove’s Refugee is the central character stalking designer Tom Paris’ stunning, architecturally utilitarian airport set, its ugly concrete Y-shaped beams softened by some curved walls, basic lounge seating with an angular opaque back wall bending the perspective, all overseen by the Controller’s eerie, full of flashing old-school electronics. Lighting designer Rob Casey created exciting dramatic set pieces yet sensitively highlighted individuals and vignettes as the moods changed.

The appeal of Flight is the mix of every-day characters, juxtaposing comedy with the slow shift to a much darker place, immediately resonant as refugees currently pour across Europe. Dove’s energetic music is a heady brew of minimalism, bright rhythms and astonishingly sensitive lyrical moments which the orchestra under conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren tackled with committed verve. The reduced forces were only occasionally noticeable, but still produced the visceral walls of sound required at high dramatic points, the three percussion players (Dove refused to compromise here) adding to the physical energy. Bright celesta, silver-stringed harp and sharp woodwind pointed up and coloured the score, Waldren driving the tempos along briskly, never letting the energy dim for a moment in the pit.

Rosalind Dobson (Controller)
© Robert McFadzean | RCS

Joining the Refugee, we meet Tina and Bill off on holiday looking to rejuvenate their marriage, the diplomat Minskman and his very pregnant wife heading out to a new posting in Belarus, an older woman stood up by her fiancée and a couple of amorous cabin crew with airport smiles looking for a quiet place to get cosy. High up in the control room, the controller enjoys the complete authority over the action a bit too much and an Immigration Officer pursues the Refugee. 

The singers were uniformly strong, each one a match for their technically difficult music, with Rosalind Dobson’s Controller perfectly sky high in her coloratura using glockenspiel chimes to precede her announcements. Claudia Haussmann and Cameron Mitchell were comically down-to-earth as the characterfully bickering couple Tina and Bill, Jonathan Forbes Kennedy and Charlotte Richardson playfully amorous as the Steward and Stewardess. Polish mezzo Wiktoria Wizner as the Older Woman had some of the wittiest lines and a lovely rich voice. Toki Hamano’s Minskman was a smooth comforting baritone for Lindsay Grace Johnson’s ripe mezzo, her Minskwoman declining to accompany her husband on the plane. Director James Bonas judged the mix of ‘wrong trousers’ high comedy with the real drama of the violence and childbirth scenes perfectly. 

Lindsay Grace Johnson (Minskwoman)
© Robert McFadzean | RCS

Matt Paine’s clear countertenor as the Refugee was a highlight, wheedling food from the travellers at first, dismissed by everyone as a nuisance. He produced pebbles of fortune and charmed the women who aggressively turned against him when they perceived a trick. His is the final and most terrible story as he awaits his brother, one which finally moves everyone to rally in his defence to Eoin Foran’s officious Immigration Officer.

With a raucous surging score to sing over and a busy libretto to get across, the singers worked hard but sometimes the words were hard to pick up. What stayed with me were the intense individual stories and the powerful ensemble pieces which thrillingly had us pinned to our seats. This special production is a credit to the three-year group of students on stage, off-stage and in the pit. On opening night, Dove's smile on taking his bow said it all.