Saturday, February 11, 2017

First-Rate Musicianship and Imaginative Production Values Can’t Redeem a Poorly-Told Shaggy Dog Story

Last night in the YBCA Theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), Opera Parallèle (OP) gave the first performance of its new staging of Jonathan Dove’s three-act opera Flight. Working with librettist April De Angelis, Dove composed Flight on a commission by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera, which first performed it on September 24, 1998. The inspiration for the libretto was the Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport between August of 1988 and July of 2006. Because he lacked any of the necessary paperwork, Nasseri’s life was organized around constantly eluding arrest by immigration officials. (Tom Hanks played Nasseri in Steven Spielberg’s film The Terminal.)

This story provided a golden opportunity for OP’s Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel, and he rose to the occasion impressively. He recruited a creative team of Dave Dunning for a two-level set representing a flight departure gate, David Murakami for some highly imaginative approaches to video projection to flesh out the setting, and Matthew Antaky to provide the necessary ambiance through lighting design. Similarly, Artistic Director Nicole Paiement led an impressively capable chamber orchestra with a keen sense of how to blend contrasting instrumental sonorities. The cast consisted of ten equally impressive vocalists, all of whom had to negotiate jumping through their own technical hoops.

By all rights this should have been a highly satisfying night of unfamiliar opera, whose relevance was enhanced by current events. Unfortunately, the weak link in the chain was De Angelis, whose libretto was so flawed in so many ways that even Staufenbiel, with his prodigious capacity for inventiveness, could not salvage it. The underlying problem was that De Angelis’ narrative amounted to a poorly-told shaggy dog story.

One reason may be that De Angelis did not realize that she was telling a shaggy dog story. For that matter, in a world in which discourse has been reduced to exchanges on Twitter, the very nature of the shaggy dog story may required explanation; so here goes. Basically, a shaggy dog story is a joke that takes a very long time to tell. The teller must be able to weave an elaborate web of intricate details, guiding the listener along a winding path through a complex environment. However, the end of the path is climaxed with a punch line that veers off in an entirely unexpected direction, often leaving the listener feeling sheepish about having given so much attention to so many details that turn out to be irrelevant. (Among musicians, one of the best shaggy dog stories concerns a Stradivarius wood block; but that, as they say, is another story!)

To be sure, Flight is explicitly described as a comic opera; but the punch line resides in an alternative universe that is anything but funny. Most of the opera is a parade of the different types of characters one encounters in an airport departure lounge, each absurdly weird in his/her own way. All these personalities are being observed by a character identified only as Refugee, a countertenor part delivered impressively by Tai Oney. However, for almost all of the three acts, the Refugee is pretty much in the background watching Arthur Rimbaud’s “savage parade” march in front of him. His engagement with those characters is minimal; but he does get hidden in a large trunk near the end of the second act and into the beginning of the third. (Does De Angelis know about the roll-top desk in Ben Hecht’s The Front Page?)

Only at the very end does the Refugee describe who he is and why he cannot leave the terminal. This is the one episode in the opera that does not feel like a gratuitous cliché, and Oney’s delivery could not have been better. However, it is also the shaggy-dog punch line that pretty much negates everything that has previously taken place as little more than stuff and nonsense. None of this gets much support from Dove’s approach as a composer. Over the course of the entire score, it is hard to find a single measure that had not already appeared in some piece by John Adams, with references to “Grand Pianola Music” and Nixon in China being the most blatant.

Those of us with the patience to sit through an opera by Richard Wagner probably have no trouble with the idea of a shaggy dog story that takes three and one-half hours to relate. However, at the very least, the story needs to be a good one. De Angelis’ libretto never succeeds in filling that bill, and Dove’s music offered little to engage the ear when narrative failed. Fortunately, one could enjoy both the production and the performers that realized that production; but the last fifteen minutes of the evening did little to justify enduring the first three hours.

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