One great disappointment of this season’s absence of live music was the lost opportunity to see onstage the modern novelty in Seattle Opera’s schedule, British composer Jonathan Dove’s “Flight.” (Relatively modern, that is; it premiered in 1998.) But whoever suggested filming the company’s production, streaming April 23-25, at the Museum of Flight deserves a fat raise; the museum’s interior proved an ideal stand-in for the airport in which Dove and librettist April De Angelis set intertwining stories of travelers trapped overnight by an electrical storm.
As travelers, naturally, they’re all seeking something. A refugee (Randall Scotting), who stowed away on a flight and now can’t leave the terminal, wants a home; Bill and Tina (Joshua Kohl, Karen Vuong) want to revive a stale marriage; two flight attendants (Joseph Lattanzi, Sarah Larsen) just want each other. A pregnant woman (Karin Mushegain) moving overseas with her diplomat husband (Aubrey Allicock) wants confidence she’s doing the right thing; she gets the opera’s hardest-hitting moment, a startlingly bitter soliloquy mourning the freedom-killing commitments of motherhood.
At the other end of the feminist-empowerment spectrum is Sandra (Margaret Gawrysiak), who is desperately awaiting the arrival of her possibly imaginary fiancé — since, at 52, it’s implied, this is her last chance not to die alone. (It’s a dismayingly outdated stereotype for an opera striving so hard to explore contemporary themes.) Completing the airport staff is an immigration officer (Damien Geter) and an air traffic controller (Sharleen Joynt), who gets a highflying and all-too-brief aria that slyly recalls a traditional “mad scene” — a centuries-old operatic convention in which sopranos under emotional stress express it in an acrobatic vocal line. It’s partly shot outside, another example of stage director Brian Staufenbiel’s clever utilization of filming locales all over the museum.
This aria’s a high point of Dove’s splendid score. Its endlessly fascinating propulsion and sparkle headily evoke the exhilaration of flight — particularly in a passage in the middle of Act 1 that depicts a plane’s takeoff in music of daring, riotous energy. Making a smallish pit ensemble, conducted on the soundtrack by Viswa Subbaraman, sound like a huge one testifies to Dove’s magical orchestral skill; his sense of dramatic timing is less expert, as when the harried diplomatic couple stops to sing a four-minute duet about how they’re about to miss their flight. Yes, details like this matter, considering the production’s otherwise naturalistic approach.
But part of the blame here goes to De Angelis’ libretto, which, sorry to report, is not up to the task on three levels: building characters more than paper-thin, constructing a narrative that pulls you along and makes you care what happens, and providing lyrics as sophisticated and poetic as the music Dove lavishes on them. Awkward phrasing, painfully contrived rhymes and unnecessary repetition constantly kill the mood. Sandra, referring to her outfit, sings, “Do I look conspicuous? I mean, strange … / Should I have worn a less flamboyant range?,” while later Tina lets us know that “I feel a rage raging through me!” Every verbal infelicity yanks you out of the story — and De Angelis’ Sandra, for whom manlessness is presented as a horror equivalent to the refugee’s statelessness, is really an eye-roller.
The music and the staging, though, redeem the production. “Flight” follows other recent offerings (in just the past two years, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” “The Falling and the Rising,” and “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”) as yet another gratifying example of Seattle Opera’s commitment to contemporary stories told through compelling music.