There was no movie, but there was an opera: Airline Icarus, by composer Brian Current (who also conducted) and librettist Anton Piatigorsky. Presented by Soundstreams Canada at Toronto’s Ada Slaight Hall, the production featured a small cast who were well chosen and ready for take-off. Director Tim Albery’s staging was nicely paced, and engaging enough to overcome the modesty of Teresa Przybylski’s sets and costumes. (This was no big-budget show.)
On this particular flight, there’s a Businessman who sells software (baritone Geoffrey Sirett), an Advertising Executive (soprano Vania Chan) and a Scholar on his way to a conference (tenor Graham Thomson). Completing the cast are a Pilot (baritone Alexander Dobson) and a Flight Attendant (mezzo Krisztina Szabó). The cast-members express their private and public thoughts – anxieties, ambitions and love-interests – until some very strange things start to happen. It’s not especially clear what these things are or why they occur: there’s talk of the plane climbing in altitude, and the program notes suggest that it eventually breaks up in mid-air.
Like other pieces by Current I’ve heard (and I’ve heard a few), Airline Icarus is bursting with musical ideas. He’s an artful manipulator of his own brand of tonality – a broad, expanded language that embraces both consonance and dissonance – and he has a fondness for colourful instrumental and vocal effects. As well, he has fluid approach to tempo and metre that give his scores a distinctive stamp.
These strengths came together impressively in the one big aria in the piece – sung by Dobson in a warm and smooth voice, over intricate ostinato patterns from the nine-piece orchestra. It was at this moment that Airline Icarus finally took wing and soared.
I say “finally,” because the aria comes near the end of the opera. Up to this point, Current’s writing has a skittish quality: his musical ideas have a way of seeming like they’re constantly on their way to some kind of culmination, only to turn elusively in a different direction. It’s cleverly done, but it’s a kind of cleverness that doesn’t always offer listeners much of a reward. Neither does the work’s ending, which leaves the audience dangling at 30,000 feet.
As I left the theatre, I couldn’t help thinking that there was something eerily apt in the timing of this opera’s premiere. It was just three months ago that Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 vanished somewhere over the Indian Ocean. The Boeing 777’s disappearance remains an unsettling, open-ended mystery. Airline Icarus is similarly inconclusive. For all its ingenuity, the piece withholds catharsis, both musically and dramatically.
Copyright Colin Eatock 2014