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.