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An ambitious world premiere at Vancouver Opera

Frederique Vezina and Aaron St. Clair Nicholson as Lillian Alling and Scotty MacDonald. Credit: Tim Matheson

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.

Estacio, a much-commissioned Canadian composer, writes music whose eclectic fluency mirrors the various stages of Lillian’s journey once she passes through Ellis Island. He samples barbershop harmonies for a punchy gaggle of Brooklyn boys and Norwegian fiddle music (including a Verdi-like banda effect) when Lillian stops at a farm in North Dakota. Her fateful encounter with a telegraph lineman in BC — Scotty MacDonald, Jimmy’s father as a young man — is heralded by a nifty vocal staccato mimicking Morse code. Estacio has an almost Straussian affinity for imitative effects and wields his orchestral and choral forces with vibrant colors. Attentive audiences will notice how cleverly he hints at the opera’s unexpected denouement through musical motifs.

The solo vocal writing falls into long patches of parlando blandness, peppered with expressive outbursts and instrumental commentary. In part this seems to follow from the composer’s evident respect for the libretto, but it also results from the opera’s plot-driven structure. The complicated exposition of the first act leaves little room for more than superficial musical characterization until its grand finale, an effective choral number set as a prison hymn. It’s really in the second act, with its series of revelations and an extended orchestral interlude, that Estacio can dig in, resorting to a passionate, latter-day verismo and a touching quartet for the final revelation about Lillian. He writes what is to my taste his most powerful music when he evokes the dark past of her early life in Russia.

The design team imaginatively reinforces the music drama. Sue LePage’s set plausibly accommodates the two planes of the narrative — past and present — and its rapid scene shifts. Realistic stage elements (most notably, Jimmy’s Datsun pickup truck, which rolls in and out of view) blend with large multiscreen projections of nature (film and stills designed by Sean Nieuwenhuis and Tim Matheson). A moment of local color, set in Stanley Park, has the striking image-come-to-life effect of Sunday in the Park with George. LePage also designed the costumes (170 in total) with a flair for historical detail and harmonious variety. Harry Frehner’s lighting neatly integrates the projections with the stage scene.

The all-important threads of obsession and memory that unify the sprawling action are well orchestrated in Kelly Robinson’s stage direction. There’s never a hint of dull “stand-and-sing” opera in Lillian Alling — even in long narrative stretches. Frédérique Vézina infuses the title role with an intriguing restlessness and confidently follows its varied emotional contours. She has the stamina needed for the sudden upswell of dramatic soprano writing in Lillian’s climactic act-two confession. Aaron St. Clair Nicholson’s mellifluous baritone blends bluster, tenderness, and devotion in his moving portrayal of Scotty, the link between the two stories. Among the other principals, tenor Colin Ainsworth stands out in his memorable cameo as the young Norwegian Kristian who is fired by Lillian’s adventurous example.

The most memorable performance comes from the venerable Judith Forst as the spirited but pained Irene. Hers is a tour de force of dramatic singing, finding nuance in the most offbeat phrase. As her son, Roger Honeywell is given far less musical characterization and is mostly a reactive character, but he invests the stirring quartet of disclosure in the final act with throbbing emotional honesty.

Jacques Lacombe conducted the premiere as if he were handling a classic and was finely tuned to the opera’s dramatic momentum and lyrical detours alike. Despite the difficult acoustics of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre — Vancouver’s multi-purpose, 3,000-seat civic theater which does duty as the opera house — orchestra and singers were well balanced.

Following Vancouver Opera’s performances, Lillian Alling will be produced this coming summer by co-producing partner The Banff Centre. You can get a taste of the show and more background from clips posted here.

If you go: Lillian Alling runs through Oct. 23 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, BC. Show times and ticket information available here or by phone at 604-683-0222.

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