A refugee finds himself stranded in an airport, unable to leave because he has no passport or documentation. He is effectively stateless.
That is the basic plotline of English composer Jonathan Dove's opera "Flight," and you could be forgiven for thinking it was written yesterday. In fact "Flight," inspired by a true story, was first performed two decades ago by Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and has had numerous international performances since.
The staging currently playing at Minnesota Opera originated at Opera Parallèle in San Francisco three years ago, but it has been freshly cast and given a new stage director (David Radamés Toro) for its Twin Cities incarnation.
"Flight" is billed as a comedy, and Toro doesn't shirk from maxing out its potential for creating laughter.
The libidinous Steward, played by baritone Christian Thurston, is particularly active — first coupling with the Stewardess (a feisty Chrystal Williams) behind a ticket desk, then making out in a bare-chested clinch with Bill, a traveler whose wife, Tina, scorns him for his sexual predictability.
If some of "Flight's" humor sounds questionable by 2020 standards, that's because it is. When Renée Rapier's Minskwoman gives birth in Act Three, it's treated as farce, and feels uncomfortably lowbrow in its manipulation of the audience.
A bigger problem is the structure of the libretto, which puts the eventually central character of the Refugee on the periphery of the action for much of Acts One and Two, leaving the biggest revelations about his back story until the opera's conclusion.
Cortez Mitchell, who sings the part, could do nothing about that. But his Act Three interventions were delivered in a mellifluous, beautifully even countertenor wanting only in a notch or two more volume to ride the orchestra's louder effusions.
The catty, temperamental Tina of soprano Lisa Marie Rogali also caught the ear, as did the Minskman of baritone Nicholas Davis. It's a smaller part, but Davis — like Rogali, a Resident Artist at Minnesota Opera — made you wish that it was bigger.
Dave Dunning's set design effectively contrasted a prosaic, chrome-seated waiting area at stage level with a raised walkway where passengers lined up for departures. Behind it a gridiron video screen flashed evocative images designed by David Murakami, with banks of puffy cumulus scudding by, rain pelting down, or airplanes taxiing on a runway.
Above the action, stage-right, rose a communications tower where a Controller cast a jaundiced eye, Greek Chorus-like, on the human flotsam below her. Soprano Katrina Galka sang the part grippingly, nailing some stratospheric high notes.
Dove's music is primed with pulsing kinetic energy, and is often wondrously alluring in its textures. The score was colorfully conducted by Geoffrey McDonald, who for the most part kept the cast and players on point in its tricksy rhythms.
For all of the opera's maddening quirks of structure and questionable tilts at "comedy," this staging eventually showed that "Flight" has a beating heart, and something to say about an international refugee predicament that persists into the present moment.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.