Flight, Opera Holland Park

At Opera Holland Park, the work was directed by Stephen Barlow withBrad Cohen conducting theCity of London Sinfonia.James
sang the Refugee, withJennifer
as the Controller,Jeffrey
as Bill,Ellie
as Tina,Lucy Schaufer as
the Older Woman,Kitty Whately as the
Stewardess,George von Bergen as the
Steward,Nicholas Garrett
as Minksman,Victoria Simmonds as
Minkswoman and John Savournin as
Immigration Office, with lighting by Richard Howell, movement by Sam
Spencer-Lane and video design by Jack Henry James.

Flight was commissioned by Glyndebourne, and premiered by
Glyndebourne on Tour in 1998 with it going on to receive a main stage
production in 1999. Glyndebourne revived the work in 2005 and British Youth
Opera performed it in 2008 (in a production by Martin Lloyd Evans with Andrew
Radley as the Refugee, Nicky Spence as Bill and Duncan Rock as the Steward).
But rather amazingly this was the first time that a professional company had
staged the work in London; a long overdue debut.

One of the beauties of Flight is that April de Angelis’s witty
libretto is quite traditionally structured and is unashamedly an opera (rather
than trying to pretend it is play where the characters happen to sing). So it
is in three acts, with entrance arias for each of the characters, and a great
use of ensemble. Reading a summary the piece could almost be a libretto for one
of Rossini’s comedies. But within this Jonathan Dove’s music brings an
accessible, yet contemporary resonance to everything. And though April de
Angelis’s characters are simply archetypes, Jonathan Dove’s music fleshes
them out and gives them humanity.

One of the strengths of Stephen Barlow’s production was that it took the
whole piece seriously, so that each member of the cast created a naturally
believable and real person. Yes, some parts were funny. Achingly so in the case
of Kitty Whately and George von Bergen (Stewardess and Steward) with their
tryst in the lift, with the lift doors repeatedly flashing open to reveal yet
more flesh (this was definitely NSFW) and a more exotic pose; poignantly so in
the case of the bickering of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Ellie Laugharne (Bill
and Tina), a couple whose marriage is going on the rocks. But clearly the whole
cast had great fun and the other strength of the production was that this was a
real strong and balanced ensemble.

The plot is quite simple. Set in an airport terminal overseen by the
Controller (Jennifer France) in her eerie high above the concourse, the Refugee
(James Laing) is marooned there unable to enter or leave because of lack of
papers (the plot was based on a real life case), constantly waiting for his
brother who has his papers. Around him people come and go, and he scrounges
bits and pieces to eat. We meet Bill and Tina (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Ellie
Laugharne), hoping a holiday will bring back the sparkle in their relationship,
and very dependent on a self-help book for relationship advice. The Older Woman
(Lucy Schaufer) has come to meet her younger lover from Spain where she met him
in holiday, he is 30 years younger than her and all she has is a postcard from
him. Minksman and Minkswoman (Nicholas Garrett and Victoria Simmonds) are
travelling to Minsk as he is a diplomat. She is heavily pregnant and at the
last minute refuses to go, he goes alone. The Steward and Stewardess (Kitty
Whately and George von Bergen) are both travelling to different destinations
and grab their 17 minutes together for that quick tryst. The final piece in
this jigsaw is the Immigration Officer (John Savournin) who appears
periodically and forces the Refugee to hide.

An electrical storm cancels all flights and forces to them all to spend the
night. The Refugee gives each of the women a magic stone to help them, in
return for them helping him when the time comes. Feelings intensify in the
confinement, the Steward and Stewardess find that their relationship only works
when they are pressured for time, Tina and Bill bicker constantly with her
saying that he is boring, the Older Woman loses confidence that her fiance is
coming, the Controller gets jealous that the Refugee no longer focuses his
attention on her, but concentrates on the other people. Strange things happen,
going off on a wander to find the Stewardess, Bill finds the Steward and the
two go off to drink and smoke dope, resulting in another hilarious tryst. The
women all find out that the Refugee has given each of them a stone, they attack
him and bundle him into the lift.

The last act sees flights resumed and relationships settled. Bill is no
longer boring, and a bump on the head means he and Tina start their holiday
with clean slate. The Older Woman decides she is going to go on another
holiday. The Steward and Stewardess return to their status quo of quick trysts.
Minskman returns and Minskwoman is delivered of her baby. The Immigration
Officer returns and finally we hear the Refugee’s poignant story.

Andrew Riley’s set was simple yet elegant in shades of grey, Stephen
Barlow made wonderful use of the three lifts which punctuated the stage. Onto
the grey back-drop were projected Jack Henry James video designs to evoke the
storm and other moments.

Though the Refugee is at the heart of the story, he is absent for much of
Act 2 but in Act 3 with his recounting his tale the character is placed at the
heart of the opera, turning it from an amiable comedy into something far
deeper. James Laing sang with a gorgeously even and creamy tone throughout, and
in the opening acts brought a lovely seedy, melancholy down at heel feel to the
character. Then in his final recitation he was spellbinding in the way he wove
story, text and music into a compelling tragic whole. This was singing of great
poise and of real heart, and made a lovely change from seeing counter-tenors as
eerie non-human beings or swaggering baroque heroes.

Jennifer France’s Controller was not only physically above everyone else,
her vocal line was similarly stratospheric. There were times when the steely
control and beauty if Jennifer France’s line threatened to veer into
harshness, but she brought a wonderful glitter and a superb evenness of tone to
all the higher register in a role which has lots of long high lying lyrical
phrases. But she also brought real sense of character too, especially in the
Controller’s Act 2 breakdown, and we left the opera at the end with a real
sense of possibility of something between her and the Refugee. Jennifer France
graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 2013 in and is about to become a
Scottish Opera Emerging Artist, and this role was a very notable assumption for

Kitty Whately and George von Bergen were a complete delight as the Steward
and Stewardess, clearly having the time of their life and chaneling the TV
series The High Life, but there was never a sense of send-up and each
singer combined a nice musicality with a feeling of the personality beneath.
Ellie Laugharne and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts were funny in a more Woody Allen-ish
way as we laughed to hide our embarrassment at recognising traits in their
relationship. Ellie Laugharne brought just the right sense of brittleness to
her bright lyric voice, whilst Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts used his dramatic tenor to
great comic/tragic effect as well as bravely using his size too. Lucy Schaufer
made the Older Woman both funny and touching, obviating the clear danger of
finding her funny for the wrong reasons by the sheer poignancy of her
performance. Nicholas Garrett’s role as Minksman was relatively concise, but
he too gave a strongly believable performance. Whilst Victoria Simmonds as his
wife was profoundly moving as a woman at the mercy of her body and her
hormones, having her own moment of transition at the end with the birth. John
Savournin had rather less to do as the Immigration Officer, and as a seasoned
performer in G&S with his own Charles Court Opera it must have been
tempting to send the role up. Wisely he did not, and it was all the stronger
for it.

The opera uses quite a large orchestra with significant percussion and
Jonathan Dove’s John Adams-like repetitive motifs mean that the piece works
best if the orchestra is in a pit. Without a piece, Brad Cohen and the City of
London Sinfonia gave a superb performance and kept balance problems to a
minimum. True, there were often places where diction was occluded but the
voices always remained paramount. Yet the orchestral contribution really told,
and it makes a strong commentary throughout the action with some dramatic,
magical and glittery moments, reflecting the emotional timbre of action.
Throughout the City of London Sinfonia gave a beautifully poised and controlled
performance and rightly received strong applause at the interval and at the

This was a notable achievement for Opera Holland Park, a production in which
staging, performance, singing and playing all came together in a satisfyingly
balanced whole without a weak link. Performances continue through June, but
there are only four more (10, 12, 17 and 19 June), so catch it! But this is one
of those productions which certainly deserves continuing life.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Refugee: James Laing, Controller: Jennifer France, Bill: Jeffrey
Lloyd-Roberts, Tina: Ellie Laugharne, Older Woman: Lucy Schaufer, Stewardess:
Kitty Whately, Steward: George von Bergen, Minksman: Nicholas Garrett,
Minkswoman: Victoria Simmonds, Immigration Officer: John Savournin. Director:
Stephen Barlow, conductor: Brad Cohen, design: Andrew Riley, lighting: Richard
Howell, movement: Sam Spencer-Lane, video: Jack Henry James. City of London
Sinfonia. Opera Holland Park, 6 June 2015.

image_description=Image courtesy of Opera Holland Park
product_title=Flight, Opera Holland Park
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above image courtesy of Opera Holland Park