Airline Icarus: music by Brian Current, libretto by Anton Piatigorsky. Presented by Soundstreams, seen on June 3 2014, Ada Slaight Hall, Daniels Spectrum. Conducted by Brian Current, stage director Tim Albery. More info & tickets
I never thought I’d come out a Brian Current joint thinking how fun and moving the experience was, but there it is: the sixty minutes chamber opera Airline Icarus runs quite an emotional gamut and we have it now on record that Current is not entirely adverse to creating some incredibly moving music.
Whether I end up adoring his works—like Three Pieces for Orchestra that the TSO played at the New Creations Festival this year, which was extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve heard before—or whether I find them impenetrable—like the music on his CD This isn’t silence, which I fail to get, in any way the music can be ‘gotten’ by the listener—he doesn’t seem to be interested in emotional manipulation of any kind. It’s an artistic stance worth saluting: going for the emotional is the easier way of composing, and many composers seem to be in the business of lulling the listener or providing comfort. On the other hand, it’s also an artistic stance that sometimes keeps me safely detached from the music that I’m hearing. I can find Three Pieces a thrill, but I won’t end up loving it and needing it in my life again.
Well, Airline Icarus changed things. I really would be eager to listen to it as a recording, and to read Piatigorsky’s libretto. The work is very atmospheric—the atmosphere changes multiple times, and from one dramatic segment to the next the musical material changes too. We follow the five principals on a tedious flight to Cleveland—the flight attendant (Krisztina Szabó), the airport worker and later the pilot (Alexander Dobson), the businessman (Geoffrey Sirett), the ad exec (Vania Chan), and the classics scholar (Graham Thomson). There is little actual interaction among them, and the text sung is voicing chiefly their inner thoughts. There are many effective ensembles, all very dissonant yet expressive and (here goes that word) moving.
A six-person chorus is there too, and they are sometimes the public, sometimes the collective mind of all the characters, sometimes the anonymous crowd of passengers.
There is a dash of melodrama at the beginning as the principals immediately establish the ties of desiring and repulsion among themselves. The scholar remains somewhat apart from the others, overcome by his fear of flying—and his obsession by the visions of flying in ancient mythologies. Sirett and Dobson are probably my two favourite Toronto baritones right now, and they did not disappoint, but we were equally lucky with Thomson in the role of the scholar. Really good acting and singing: the character was indeed falling apart before our eyes. Vania Chan’s high-strung ad executive was also convincing. The character remains something of a mystery—perhaps due to less self-knowledge, or maybe a more eager self-policing than the other four? Szabo’s task was different, to add a touch of pathos and sympathy to a fairly simple fantasist that is the character of the flight attendant, and she accomplished it.
After the uneventful cruising comes the turbulence (which Current, interestingly, has as a very loud musical event—you have to hear that, words won’t do). Which is followed by a more serious crisis, and Tim Albery (with Piatigorsky and Current) luckily leaves to us to decide what happened. Luggage is opened and the clothes are scattered and after a pretty despairing passage, a very different mood seeps in and takes over, the most rhythmic and joyful segment, something that sounds like it came out of JohnAdamsMichaelNymanPhillipGlass factory. The pilot stands up and sings from the top of the plane wings, with the others joining him there one by one. The printed program tells you what that passage means, but don’t believe it. The pilot may or may not have saved the plane from the crash. What came next – and the chorus will have the final word, with the sopranos weep-singing in fear – is up to you to decide. The text, the music and the staging trust you that much.
(My companion and I agreed that they all went down when the clothes were strewn. The rest is… well, like in William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin.)
Runs till June 8. Don’t miss out.
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann. Top: Dawn Bailey (chorus); bottom: Dobson and Chan, with the chorus.