In concept/development/workshop since 2001, Brian Current and Anton Piatigorsky’s chamber opera, Airline Icarus, got its first complete, staged performance last night in a production directed by Tim Albery in the Ada Slaight Hall at the Daniels Spectrum. It’s an ambitious work taking us on a journey into the minds of the passengers and crew on a flight to Cleveland. It explores fear and desire and our need, as a society, to reach for ever greater heights regardless of cost. Hence the title. It only runs 60 minutes or so but it covers a lot of ground. More in fact than I could fully grasp without a copy of the libretto or surtitles. It’s also, refreshingly, not afraid to be funny in places.
The basic plot concerns three passengers; in adjacent seats, and a flight attendant. The Scholar (tenor Graham Johnson) is on his way to give a paper on Icarus at a conference. He’s terrified of flying and analyses the improbability of a tube of metal staying in the air. His neighbour; the Ad Executive (soprano Vania Chan) is off to visit her married sister and her family and is tormented by the fear of being old, alone and unattractive. She is crushing on the Scholar. The Business Man (baritone Geoffrey Sirett) fears the futility of his pointless, alcoholic existence and is crushing on the ad executive. The Flight Attendant (mezzo Kristina Szabó) dreams of flying more glamorous roots but meanwhile would settle for the Business Man. Over all this The Pilot (baritone Alexander Dodson) presides as a sort of hieratic presence. The six person chorus variously doubles the thoughts of the characters, interrogates them and commentates on the action.
The hall is set up so that the audience sits in banked rows facing banked rows of airline seats. At the top of these is a sort of abstract plane inhabited by The Pilot. Above that is a gantry with the nine instrumentalists (string quartet, flute, clarinet, piano and two percussionists). The production moves the singers around the block of seats and to their side and, on one occasion over to our side of the hall. It’s very effective at conveying states of mind through movement/positioning of the chorus and relationships by moving characters together or apart as needed. It’s a simple concept but the detailed execution is complex.
Current’s score is highly atmospheric with his characteristic rhythmic invention. Much of the time it drives forward quite relentlessly with much use of the percussion. At other times it’s much more meditative; at times even slipping into an almost Philip Glass like trance state. The soprano lines (solo and chorus) are often stratospheric in marked contrast to the music the men get though the Scholar’s tortured musings go pretty high too. It’s music that definitely needs to be heard more than once and shows what a talent Current is.
The performances did the work full justice. Graham Thomson was terrific as the tortured scholar and Vania Chan was both convincing and very musical in negotiating some tricky music. Most of the “comic relief” comes from the interactions between Szabó and Sirett and they were excellent. Dobson’s oracular pronouncements, sometimes eerily amplified, helped keep things disturbing. The chorus has a huge amount of difficult music to sing and did so very well indeed. The orchestra, conducted by the composer, played with skill and conviction though the sound was sometimes somewhat muddy. This was, I’m sure, an artefact of the hall and the peculiar placement of the band and it didn’t really affect the performance.
It was very gratifying to see prolonged and enthusiastic applause at the end from the capacity crowd. Airline Icarus is a really worthwhile work that justifies its long gestation. I hope it gets many more productions. the current production runs until June 8th and tickets are available here.
Photo credits: Cylla von Thiedemann