Opera: The passenger is always right

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AIRPORTS HAVE this in common with opera houses: we pretend that what we're there for is perfectly normal, when it's nothing of the sort. Both are fantasy zones that we pass through in the hope of transformation. And sometimes it happens.

Airport and opera house come together in Jonathan Dove's Flight, premiered by Glyndebourne Touring Opera last Thursday. April de Angelis's libretto takes us to the heart of the modern airport, the transit lounge, where nine characters wait for something to change their lives. The Refugee (Christopher Robson) has made the lounge his home; Bill (Richard Coxon) and Tina (Mary Plazas) think a holiday will repair their marriage; the Older Woman (Nuala Willis) awaits the plane bringing her holiday romance back to her; Minskman (Steven Page) and heavily pregnant Minskwoman (Anne Mason) are about to emigrate. Stewardess (Ann Taylor) and Steward (Garry Magee) rut randily. Above them hovers the coldly mysterious controller (Claron McFadden), controlling little, while Immigration Officer (Richard van Allan) threatens to shatter everyone's dreams.

The first thing to say about Dove's treatment is that it was rapturously received, which doesn't happen every day with new works. No doubt Richard Jones's unexpectedly sober production helps, telling the story plainly but with enough wit to keep the laughter bubbling, while Nicky Gillibrand's realistically spacious sets switch easily between interior and exterior. Dove's score, as we've come to expect from this acutely theatrical composer, never lacks invention: the witty way he orchestrates the "bing-bong" preceding the Controller announcements is just one example.

Churl that I am, though, I can't help but feel that he can't quite cope with the very busy business of de Angelis's libretto. The number of characters is the problem: they all have so much to say for themselves, that Dove has to work overtime to find musical room for them. As a result, his vocal lines emerge as euphonious arioso, but rarely expand to fill the stage, although Robson's falsetto Refugee comes closest.

By the same token, Dove's orchestra, expertly handled by David Parry, is at its best when at its biggest and brassiest, yet it seems to be running fast just to keep up, so that minimalist poundings and show-tune melodiousness repeatedly trip over each other. only the middle act, when sex and death rear their heads, shows Dove in full Flight. Yet, when all's said and done, the fact remains that the crowd went wild. Perhaps our critical cavils should be put aside, in the face of that all-too-rare achievement.

Glyndebourne touring Opera's production is at Glyndebourne, 26 September, 22 October (01273 813 813)