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Stage Left: Pacific Opera Victoria’s delightful Flight achieves liftoff

These days, we take flying more or less for granted. It’s odd, since in historical terms, we humans have managed it for only a short period.
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John Robert Lindsey, left, Jacqueline Woodley, Kimy McLaren, William Towers, John Brancy, Allyson McHardy, Emilia Boteva in Flight.

These days, we take flying more or less for granted. It’s odd, since in historical terms, we humans have managed it for only a short period. That said there are those of us — amid the suitcase lugging and fumbling for passports — who still marvel at the miracle of flight.

Certainly there is something strange and existentially funky about flying and airports. In their 1998 opera Flight, which made its Canadian debut Thursday at the Royal Theatre, composer Jonathan Dove and librettist April De Angelis cleverly capture the surreal wonder of it all.

The good news: Opera traditionalists loath to leave the friendly skies of Verdi, Mozart and Puccini have nothing to fear with Flight. The three-hour romp is wonderfully accessible, boasting lovely, simple melodies and a witty libretto that’s both broadly comic and touching.

This Pacific Opera Victoria production unquestionably achieves liftoff.

Director Morris Panych oversees the proceedings with the correct balance of irreverence and sensitivity.

Flight benefits enormously from Ken MacDonald’s stylish airport set — taking inspiration from the space-age Jetsons look of the TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. And Dana Osborne’s bold 1960s costumes (go-go boots, B-52 hairstyles) are an unqualified hoot.

The score is tricky, with oodles of ensemble work requiring a dense interweaving of voices. On Thursday night, a strong cast performed well.

So did the Victoria Symphony, conducted by Timothy Vernon, managing to navigate potentially treacherous rhythmic twists and turns with aplomb.

Flight is inspired by the real-life story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri. Having lost his papers, the Iranian refugee famously lived for 18 years at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris because no country would accept him. This astonishing story of a man left in limbo also inspired the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal.

In Flight, the refugee is played by countertenor William Towers. There is no overture; we meet this character immediately.

Towers appears barefoot, unshaven and dishevelled, clutching a suitcase.

The refugee is portrayed as a mystical loner cast into purgatory — a sense amplified by the uncanny tonal beauty of Towers’ upper-register singing.

Equally mysterious is the air-traffic controller. We see soprano Sharleen Joynt atop a six-metre tower, where she looks down on the human rabble in an almost God-like fashion

Joynt is a strong colouratura with a keening timbre and an ability to bull’s-eye stratospheric high notes (she also impressed in POV’s 2017 production of The Magic Flute).

Typically, her voice soars in an ethereal manner over the overlapping burble of the ensemble, providing moments of transcendent beauty and power.

We meet a diplomat (bass-baritone Neil Craighead) who has been posted to Minsk and is reluctantly accompanied by his pregnant wife (mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy).

Mezzo-soprano Emilia Boteva plays an older woman waiting at the airport for her Spanish boy-toy.

Soprano Kimy McLaren and baritone John Brancy portray flight attendants who are tremendously randy — at one point, the couple is caught in spread-eagled flagrante delicto.

There’s also a young couple, Tina (soprano Jacqueline Woodley) and Bill (tenor John Robert Lindsey) trying to rekindle their romance.

These people bicker, fight and fret; their relationships break apart and sometimes heal. The refugee, an outsider, hovers on the fringes — penniless, begging, almost a Christ-like figure.

He offers the others a balm, a “magic stone” that promises at least temporary relief.

Flight says something about the absurdity of modern life, here symbolized by the airport.

People set off on adventures with a sense of self-important urgency — (“Our seats await us/You mustn’t engage us” they sing ). Yet how significant are these journeys? Dove and De Angelis pose the question with gently satirical lyrics and mock-heroic crescendos.

Often the 10-person cast (including baritone Justin Welch as an immigration officer) is presented on stage in full song, which is unusual.

This emphasis on ensemble sections is a highlight of this opera — the effect is often shimmering, rippling, like shafts of sunlight dappling the waves of a lake.

Director Panych and designer MacDonald present a unified, boldly theatrical interpretation of Flight that stays true to its creators’ vision.

This is engaging magic realism, unafraid of earthy bawdiness yet also tuned into life’s absurdity, fragility and tragic beauty.

We take pleasure in the small touches (for instance, Panych has performers walk up staircases as though they’re gliding) as well as the big broad strokes (there’s a wonderful finale in which the passengers ascend into what appears to be a full-sized airplane).

Flight is, in short, a delight. It continues at the Royal Theatre today, Feb. 28 and March 1.

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