Tough economic times don’t necessarily equate with a retreat into safe and familiar repertoire. On Saturday, Vancouver Opera launched its season by giving birth to a brand-new work. What’s more, the world premiere of Lillian Alling bucks the trend to downsize to modest or even chamber-scale dimensions that has shaped a number of contemporary operas. The nearly-three-hour production centers around evoking an epic, transcontinental journey and calls for a cast of eight principals as well as supernumeraries, a chorus of 40, and an orchestra of 60 players.
With Lillian Alling — three years in the making — Vancouver Opera joins the list of North American companies that have recently premiered a large-scale operatic commission as part of their main stage season. Prominent examples include Daron Hagen’s Amelia at Seattle Opera, Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick at Dallas Opera, Before Night Falls by Jorge Martín at Fort Worth Opera, and (last month) the Los Angeles Opera premiere of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino.
This actually marks the second time this year that Vancouver Opera has taken a big gamble on contemporary opera. As recently as March, the company gave the belated Canadian premiere of Nixon in China in a well-received (and well-attended) new production of the watershed opera by John Adams. Like Seattle Opera’s Amelia this past spring, Lillian Alling represents a significantly risky effort for Vancouver Opera and is its most ambitious commission yet (at a total budget of CAN$1.7 million, compared with $1 million for a typical Vancouver production and an annual operating budget of $9.6 million last season). Curiously, both operas happen to feature a striking female protagonist as the focus of an intergenerational storyline.
It’s easy to sense what attracted composer John Estacio and librettist and playwright John Murrell to their topic. The eponymous heroine straddles a space between historical fact and legend. According to a scant trail of evidence, the real Lillian Alling emigrated from Russia to New York in the mid-1920s and then compulsively trekked westward across the country and into Canada, mysteriously drawn back to her homeland. She was held for vagrancy at Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby but then continued her quest and was last seen heading back alone into the wilderness of British Columbia. This ghostly outline of a narrative continues to invite speculative fleshing out by artists and biographers.
The two-act opera finds its key to Lillian in the uncanny determination that drives her quest — ostensibly in search of her betrothed, Jozéf, who has preceded her to the New World. Estacio and Murrell imagine a back story that would be passionate enough to motivate her — and to trigger the aftermath which is also their invention. The composer and librettist have collaborated previously on two major operas — Filulmena (2003) and Frobisher (2007) — and clearly share an instinct for tightly crafted narrative and cinematic pacing. Lillian Alling shows no interest in experimenting with unusual musical language or new techniques; instead, it relies with a middlebrow (at times, unabashedly sentimental) confidence on the dependable tropes of stage and film, translating these into persuasive and effective operatic terms.
Murrell frames Lillian’s journey as an extended flashback which an elderly woman, Irene (mezzo Judith Forst) recounts decades later to her son Jimmy (tenor Roger Honeywell). Irene, reluctantly forced to give up her independent life in the mountains of British Columbia, is being taken by Jimmy to an assisted-living home in the city. Their journey is intercut with her retelling of Lillian’s story. Like the stretto of a fugue, Murrell’s highly well-crafted libretto weaves these two strands ever more tightly together as the opera progresses. Along with the dramatic momentum he sets up, Morrell flavors the dialogue with arresting imagery and sketches out an especially memorable profile for Irene. “Men always race to the end of a story,” she declares, pointing out that stories need time. Much of the opera is about the careful, deliberate build-up to its surprise denouement.
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