Air india [REDACTED] comes close to magnificent but stumbles where abstract

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      A Turning Point Ensemble presentation. Music by Jürgen Simpson. Libretto by Renée Sarojini Saklikar. At the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s on Saturday, November 7. Continues until November 11

      There’s no denying that air india [REDACTED] is a sober and respectful artistic reaction to a horrific tragedy. Sobriety and respect are difficult to theatricalize, however, and this conceptually brilliant undertaking is less than overwhelming on-stage.

      The first clue comes early on. Talking to the Straight a week before his work’s premiere, composer Jürgen Simpson was excited about the chamber opera’s overture, in which the Turning Point musicians would be asked to play chords derived from the computer-analyzed sounds of a taxiing airliner. Symbolically, this held enormous potential—but, as realized, it failed. The chords, when they came, were delivered singly and sounded like, well, chords. Lush, interesting chords, but utterly removed from their source and consequently drained of the very real tension, anticipation, and sense of occasion actual travel entails.

      Liftoff fell flat. And from there on, air india [REDACTED] took every chance it had to lower the emotional stakes and to divorce the audience from the real life-and-death drama that inspired its creation.

      The facts are these: on June 23, 1985, a bomb exploded in the cargo hold of an Air India jumbo jet en route from Montreal to London, killing all 329 passengers and crew aboard. Most were Canadians—as were, presumably, the terror plotters. A botched investigation and trial followed, resulting in only a single conviction. The other conspirators are still at large.

      Vancouver author Renée Sarojini Saklikar lost her maternal aunt and uncle in the blast, and her 2013 book, Children of Air India: Un/authorized Exhibits and Interjections, was her response. An edited and resequenced version of her poetic text provides air india [REDACTED] with its libretto, and even in this truncated form it’s a fascinating document, taking us into our flawed criminal-justice system, into the minds of the bereaved, and into the woods on the outskirts of the Vancouver Island community where the bomb was assembled.

      But in this production, that text is impossible to follow. Visual alienation is guaranteed by director Tom Creed’s staging, in which soprano Zorana Sadiq, countertenor Daniel Cabena, and baritone Alexander Dobson sit at a long boardroom table, rising to deliver their individual statements (and the occasional duet). Who they are supposed to represent is profoundly unclear—although that’s not necessarily catastrophic, as Saklikar’s libretto doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc, using instead a prismatic and abstract approach to the tragedy.

      To further abstract that text by using operatic singers has to be questioned, however. Why insist on using voices devised in the palaces and basilicas of 16th-century Florence and Mantua to deliver multicultural, Canadian stories? All three soloists are gifted (and Cabena could fairly be described as extraordinary), but their training forces them to prioritize manner over meaning. That’s fine when telling tales of sad clowns and vengeful aristocrats, but when using contemporary language to relate complex and overlooked aspects of recent history, perhaps clarity should take precedence over style.

      The Turning Point players, under Owen Underhill’s direction, were magnificent, rendering Simpson’s intricate score with warm precision—but much more than beautiful sound could have been wrung from air india [REDACTED]’s constituent parts.