Vancouver Opera's Lillian Alling takes the art form to rugged new realms

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      A Vancouver Opera and the Banff Centre coproduction. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, October 16. Continues October 19, 21, and 23

      Operas are so often set in exotic, far-off times and places that seeing one with local references is at first a slightly surreal experience. Imagine legendary Canadian diva Judith Forst in a plaid flannel shirt and work boots at a B.C. Interior road stop, eating a brown-bag lunch next to a rusted-out pickup. Lillian Alling also finds crowds with umbrellas singing an ode to Vancouver rain, a couple meeting up in Stanley Park, and a large chorus airing their grievances about the conditions in Oakalla prison.

      Ultimately, though, Lillian Alling instills a sense of local pride, this made obvious by the warm standing ovation the much-anticipated premiere of the production earned on Saturday night.

      Commissioned by Vancouver Opera from librettist John Murrell and composer John Estacio, Lillian Alling has rustic settings but grand operatic ambitions—albeit with populist underpinnings. It follows the epic journey of Lillian Alling, a Russian immigrant who set out by foot to cross the continent in the 1920s, but it’s framed by the flashbacks of an old woman (Forst), who, in the 1980s, recounts the story to her son. That device, combined with the ample use of video projections, the young Alling’s own memories of life back in Russia, the story’s structure as a mystery, and Estacio’s sweeping score give this 21st-century work a distinctly cinematic feel.

      There are also less successful flourishes that make it feel more like a stage musical; one barbershop-y, ’20s-jazz-inflected number in which a band of men in knickers come on to Alling when she first arrives in Brooklyn feels out of place. But overall, the opera holds a lot of appeal for new audiences; it’s designed to be accessible, with few of the edgy aural assaults of so many latter-day operas.

      Alling arrives in New York looking for a man named Jozéf, whom she is to marry. Her search leads her across the continent—from a farm in North Dakota to the wilds of B.C.’s Telegraph Trail—with him always a step ahead of her. (It should be noted that Estacio and Murrell have taken some creative licence here; the real reasons behind Alling’s gruelling foot journey were never known.)

      With a voice as rich and warm as the smell of freshly cut cedar, soprano Frédérique Vézina successfully makes the journey from wide-eyed new immigrant to strong woman on a mission. She really hits her stride in Act 2 with some deeply shaded, anguished solos.

      Forst is also a fiery standout as Irene, the old woman who recounts Alling’s story as her son Jimmy (Roger Honeywell) drives her from her beloved cabin in the Interior into Vancouver to a rest home—“a cage in the city”, as she laments. Elsewhere, tenor Colin Ainsworth has a charming solo as a farm boy longing to leave his small town; baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson is a charismatic Scotty, the telegraph man who falls for Alling later on in the opera; and tenor Honeywell brings humour and warmth to Jimmy.

      Vancouver Opera and the Banff Centre (VO’s coproducer on the project) have spared no expense on the production design, which looks consistently handsome. Among the biggest challenges is the fact that Jimmy’s pickup truck must appear and disappear from a shed door on the lower stage. But it’s all seamless, with film footage of the road disappearing behind Irene and her son each time the pair drives. The multiscreen projections also beautifully conjure rain drizzling over black-and-white heritage street scenes of Vancouver and the burbling creek where Alling’s journey reaches its climax.

      No doubt about it: this story is a difficult one to tell. There is the need for a lot of exposition, as both Irene and finally Alling recount their tales. The opera is at its best when it is expressing the plot through music, such as the rousing, complexly layered choral number at Oakalla near the end of Act 1—with legions of prisoners in a sea of grey, ironically intoning “Oakalla is paradise”.

      About the only structural problem is that we know—and more importantly feel—so little of Alling’s true motivations in Act 1 that it’s hard to invest fully in her trek from New York to North Dakota to the Telegraph Trail.

      Still, the opera’s “mystery” has a big payoff in Act 2, which just adds to the sense of occasion here. There is an undeniable electricity in experiencing something this new, different, and ruggedly West Coast. And just in case that isn’t enough of a selling point for Lillian Alling, consider this: we finally have an opera we can call our own.

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      10 Comments

      Nik Black

      Oct 17, 2010 at 6:31pm

      Disappointment - thy name is Lillian Alling. Music made expressly for mass consumption that's weighed down by too many words and together they never touch the soul of the listener even for a second. In fact, the opera has a Big Sponsor feel about it - where richness lies in its glittering exterior but at its heart, it's an empty and soul-less experience.

      In her review, Ms. Smith says it's "an opera we can call our own". Hardly. There's nothing in this extravagant offering that speaks to contemporary audiences - except perhaps the notion that we've been spoon-fed too much Canadian "history" and that boomers have finally reached the age that they're putting their parents into old-folks homes. The composer and librettist are crafty Albertans and the BC references feel like add-ons - sort of like Kevin Krueger's "Spirit Festivals" where mentioning BC will get you a grant. Oddly, it's made to feel like a BC opera when, in fact, its hardly about "here" at all.

      The composer is a man of sturdy orchestrational craft, but his melodic writing cries out for more intoxicating beauty than was on display in this opera. His musical vocabulary is perfect for long, sweeping vocal lines, but he ignored the possibility almost as if writing such beautiful lines was too "old-fashioned". I have no idea why he'd ignore such an obvious possibility, but there wasn't ANY memorable music in this opera. So, we were set up for something that never occurred. It's an opera, Mr. Estacio! It's about SINGING! Ms. Veniza, as Lillian Alling, seemed restricted to her upper tessitura for most of the evening, screeching out tuneless noodling over a tonne of words while the orchestra played gorgeous accompaniments beneath her. A lost opportunity, for sure. And it began to wear on the ears after a while. How I longed for some space between the notes and some breathing between the numbers! Overall, I began to feel sorry for Ms. Veniza because she was always singing exposition and never revealing the inner motivations for her wanderlust until the second act - but by then, we'd stopped caring.

      Far, far too many words in the libretto. This is surprising because the program indicates there were no less than five workshops and you'd think someone would have said something about the wordiness of the libretto. But no. And eventually it became a too-tiring road to travel for this listener.

      The chorus was marvelous - when they were used. But they were underused and undervalued. The Oakalla prison scene seems to spring from nowhere, its purpose solely to bring a rousing end to the first act and to send the audience out on a high note as they scrambled for their intermission drinks after a 90 minute first act. But it was bitter irony that the Oakalla scene seemed modeled on the Auschwitz motto of "work shall make you free" rather than anything particularly British Columbian in nature or idea.

      The Canadian penchant for creating operas based on historic themes rather than on contemporary concerns and issues seems to be a hangover from the CBC drama department, where every story is about the past rather than about the times we're living in and the issues that are confronting us.

      No, Lillian Alling isn't an opera we can call our own. It is a modest effort that checked off all the boxes for mass appeal: a sweeping American-sounding film score "with little of the edgy aural assaults of so many latter-day operas" about immigrant Canadians who have finally reached the age where they're putting their parents in old-folks homes. But just before they do, their parents tell them something they should have known all along - that things are not quite as they seem.

      Goldorak

      Oct 17, 2010 at 10:42pm

      Vancouver Opera is kind enough to provide sound extracts. Although being lifted from rehearsals and trials, they allow us a fairly representative glimpse into this new production and the kind of culture Canada produces. Estacio shows that he can now compose for the Discovery Channel and Murrell can write restaurant menus. Pure genius!

      Cat Neilson

      Oct 18, 2010 at 12:40am

      You know, I rarely bother to comment, but Nic Black's diatribe was so obviously venting about something else, and not the actual opera I saw, that I had to comment.

      Lillian Alling was wonderful (and I went in fairly skeptical, actually). A huge number of the rest of the audience agreed with me. Thus the long standing ovation, and QE turning on the time-to-go lights after, oh, about 5 or 7 bows and the audience still happily shouting their approval. The choral/ensemble bits, like the Oakalla number, are glorious (and not easy, either). Singing in English doesn't allow for pure vowels, which is why one doesn't necessarily get the full tessitura effect.

      Anyway, the staging was truly beautiful and the effects stunning, the acting was great, and the singing, while not apparently to Nic Black's taste, actually worked. There were sufficient choral numbers, and they added much to the overall arch of the piece. The orchestra was beautifully conducted and supported the singers instead of competing with them (a bit of a peeve I have with many VOA productions -- though Bonynge fairly recently showed that this need not be so).

      And, finally, Nic Black can't have done any research into the history of Oakalla and BC's institutional punishment and coersive behavioural programs if he can say that this artistic version doesn't fairly accurately reflect early BC prison/incarceration models.

      Basically, this is a truly fine contemporary opera. It is a bit schmaltzy in the end, but, grand ciel!, it's opera -- that's the sort of thing that happens in the art form!

      James Johnstone

      Oct 18, 2010 at 11:34am

      I only saw the Dress Rehearsal but I have to agree with the Straight reviewer. The opera is brilliant. One of the highlights for me was the piece where all the telegraph operators are singing in Morse Code about the mystery woman walking the telegraph trail. Genius! This is an opera with true heart, and I hope it has legs. It deserves a wider audience. Loved it!

      Maya

      Oct 18, 2010 at 5:01pm

      I have to agree with Nik Black. I thought the opera was visually interesting, but more of a theatre play or a musical than an opera. There was too much story and too little character. No arias to touch the heart, or to open to us the hearts of the characters, for that matter. In I, Pagliacci, for example, not much story on stage, but through music you can feel and live the characters entire inner struggle.

      Also, the story is poorly researched when it comes to the Russian history -- what war and what soldiers are we talking about in the late 1920s? What poverty? This is post revolutionary time, post WWI, but before Stalin and WWII. The story fell apart for me right there.... they should have stuck with romance.

      ChrisJB

      Oct 18, 2010 at 8:35pm

      I traveled from the US to see this, and I'm very glad I did. Without the "is it our opera?" issue, I think I could look at the work as, "does it work as an opera?" And I think it does. The music, while a bit eclectic and "filmy" at times, was definitely an opera score, very enjoyable and accessible, and not a musical. The one out of character section was the jazz number, but that was fun as a change of pace. I felt the cast, chorus, and orchestra did an exceptional job with an unfamiliar and sometimes difficult work. The production was very enjoyable as well, and used the projection to great effect to tell a complicated story.
      I think that Nik Black went to see this with a chip on his shoulder, determined to find everythng wrong he could (and missed that boat). And as for Maya's comments: 1) She wished for more character development - what part of "mystery" don't you understand?; 2) the poor research is yours. Stalin took over as General Secretary in 1923 and as full Dictator in 1924 on the death of Lenin. Repression and starvation continued unabated until his death in 1953. Try Wikipedia before you go ranting next time.

      Maya

      Oct 19, 2010 at 9:29am

      ChrisJB, not to go too much into the Russian history, since this is not the time or the place, the 1920s in Russia were indeed a period of repression for the jewish people, but not through soldiers or labour camps. This was the period of re-settlement of the jewish people into agricultural areas (turning into peasants) and of taking away their money. But, the opera alludes to labour camps and soldiers, suggesting the later times of 1930s and 1940s. I think any performace which has a pretence of a historical piece must not be based on general stereotypes of a country, which the Russia piece in Lillian Alling appears to be.

      As for the "mystery" comment, mystery does not equal character, and I definitely do not deny that the story in Lillian Alling was compelling.

      VIncenzo

      Oct 24, 2010 at 1:36am

      BAD

      I hated the dredged up ”˜hatred subject”˜, the bad vibes got me as soon as arrived.
      Miss Vezina has no beautiful voice; she flopped Mimi with her unappealing voice before.
      This is not an opera, it is in the category of a mere musical.
      80% of the first act is boring filler; through it out.
      The music is sort of ho hum.

      GOOD

      The gentlemen were great.
      Loved the funny telegraph scene.
      Figaro star Aaron as Scottie was a ”˜hot star’, was funny, and sang supreme, as always.
      The scenery photography, the choir, some of the scenes, such as the umbrella scene in rainy Vancouver were outstanding, and carried the show with their redeeming qualities.

      CONCLUSION

      I do not appreciate yet another, hate story , turning Vancouver into a mere tool for an other, not so hidden, slowly unfolding hate agenda.
      There are many kinds of people in Vancouver, yet we listen to the sheepherder through the grating voice of Illian Ayling.

      ALTERNATIVE EPIC THEMES

      A more North American epic theme would be about the arrival of the early African immigrants, tended to with cruelty and humiliation by their herders.
      Or how about the still continuing, centuries long, Indian genocide?

      ILLIAN AYLING, \

      ultimately a deranged LOOSER, a person, destroyed by relentless hate.
      Not able to overcome hatred, she remains a miserable person till the end of her life, radiating deranged, evil energy.

      Dave in Vancouver

      Oct 24, 2010 at 9:44pm

      I saw this on the last night and thought it was a great.! I'm surprised with how popular the negative reviews are here. Nic Black is obviously a narrow purist with extremely high demands.
      A friend who is a professional musician commented he thought Judith Forst's annunciation was poor. Not being familiar with the history of Okalla prison (I've only lived here 20 years), I did not understand all the references to Okalla as 'paradise'. That will have to be changed if the opera is to travel.

      Nik Black

      Oct 26, 2010 at 5:44pm

      Well, I guess it's clear that no one gave much consideration to Lillian Alling. I didn't see anything in the press after it opened and the word on the street wasn't so hot. I was hoping for a bit of debate on the Georgia Straight, but it appears that nobody cares enough to get a critical discussion going.

      I really liked the Tear the Curtain uproar (now there's a show we can call our own!), so it's a little disappointing that Lillian went out on a whimper and a chock-a-block of half-price tickets. To Cat N, I didn't think my "review" was venting or a diatribe at all; just another strong opinion that caused you to write yours. That's good, I think. And to Dave in Vancouver, I wouldn't say that I'm "a narrow purist with extremely high demands", but simply an art lover with normal demands for high quality. That's how we get better, isn't it?

      And finally, the notion of opera being better than musical theatre is simply the old-fashioned high brow/low brow paradigm. So what if Mr. Estacio wrote a musical? It was produced by an opera company, wasn't it? So is Sweeney Todd and Man of La Mancha, regularly. Once, when he was asked the difference between opera and musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim replied "about an octave." And you know, he's right.

      I hope Vancouver Opera commissions and produces another opera by a Canadian composer sometime before my wife and I leave this mortal coil . It's imperative that we have new work to discuss and engage, otherwise the art-form dies. And there are plenty of 20th Century operas that Vancouver needs to see like Wozzeck, Lulu, Moses and Aaron, and, more recently, Dead Man Walking. Even though I'm not a fan of Lillian Alling, it's not "an opera we can call our own" until VO does a remount. I hope they do - someday. Then we'll see if it has legs that are stronger than the mega-watt charge that accompanies a world premiere production.