Vancouver Opera
The world premiere of John Estacio and John Murrell’s Lillian Alling

Dates and Venue 16, 19, 21 & 23 October 2010, 7.30pm | Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Lillian Frédérique Vézina Irene Judith Forst Scotty Aaron St. Clair Nicholson Jimmy Roger Honeywell

Conductor Jacques Lacombe Director Kelly Robinson Chorus Director & Associate Conductor Leslie Dala Set Designer Sue Lepage Lighting Designer Harry Frehner Wig design Stacey Butterworth Musical preparation David Boothroyd and Angus Kellett Stage manager Sheila Munn

Sung in English with English SURTITLES™

Reviewer John Jane

Even if you weren’t an opera buff, it would have been near impossible to escape the buzz circulating around the world premiere of the Vancouver Opera commissioned work Lillian Alling. Wholly justified, when it’s considered just how rare new full scale operas are. Brand new Canadian operas are close to being unique. As of the opening, no commercial recordings of Lillian Alling even exist, so that, the majority of the audience will be hearing these arias in full for the first time.

We only know that Lillian is based upon a real historical character, a mysterious Russian émigré arrives at Ellis Island around the mid 1920s. But then, after just a few months she embarks on a trans-continental trek that would take her through North Dakota and across the Canadian prairies. She is forced to have a spell in Vancouver, which includes a stint at Oakalla Prison Farm (possibly for her own protection) before setting off again to North-West British Columbia.

The rest is speculation and deliberate fiction; a product of John Murrell’s fertile imagination. The story is conveyed in flashback through Irene MacDonald, a widow in failing health as related to her son Jimmy as he helps her pack up her homestead and take her to Vancouver. There is a certain oddness in seeing the amazing coloratura mezzo-soprano Judith Forst dressed in a heavy plaid shirt, sensible shoes and holding a walking cane, playing a character close to her own age. But the diva never falters in her de facto role as narrator.

The first aria is an accessible, dulcet duet intelligently sung by Ms. Forst and tenor Roger Honeywell (who plays Jimmy MacDonald). It sets a mood of poignancy as Irene is absorbed in self pity over leaving her home. The scene quickly shifts from British Columbia in 1980 to a transit shed on Ellis Island in 1927. We first meet Lillian among the hordes of other new arrivals as they join in singing the anthemic I will not be afraid anymore (may not be exact title).

It’s soon discovered that Lillian is on a particular mission; in search of a man called Jozéf Lazinsky, to whom she claims to be betrothed. But as we follow Lillian around Brooklyn and to a farm in North Dakota where she meets Kristian (tenor Colin Ainsworth), the chivalrous son of Jozéf’s former employer who is smitten by Lillian, it becomes obvious that Jozéf is hardly marriage material. Kristian’s plea to Lillian in the mellifluous Kristian's Lament is a memorable musical high point.

John Estacio’s music may not have the drama of Wagner, or the sensuality of Puccini, but it certainly fits with this epic adventure story. His score is easy to listen to. His bright orchestrations are constantly buoyant, even when artistic movement would suggest a more weighted measure. When Lillian first encounters telegrapher Scotty MacDonald it doesn’t go well. After several months of arduous wandering and hopping freight trains she is arrested and taken off to prison, yet the music expresses a sense of blitheness. Sweet Polly from Poughkeepsie sung by the boys that Lillian runs into on the Brooklyn streets sounds like it might have been written for a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. So too, Pete the Fiddler sung by the farm folk in North Dakota.

Frédérique Vézina’s attractive soprano, though not especially large, effortlessly managed the title role. Her performance, both physically and vocally requiring agility, was always pleasing, and often inspiring. Some of the evening's most exciting singing came from baritone Aaron St.Clair Nicholson as the infatuated suitor, Scotty. Blessed with such a handsome voice, Nicholson was outstanding in every way, conveying the impulsion of a man in pursuit of a cause in his solo aria (in the Stanley Park scene) As one, Lillian Alling, as one.

The secondary roles were well taken, proof perhaps that dedication and well directed rehearsal really can pay off. It was good to see North Vancouver’s Linda Baird make her mark on stage in the first act as Nora, Sergei’s Irish wife – hope to see more of her in future productions.

The 60-piece orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Jacques Lacombe played with finesse, and shone exquisitely in the atmospheric overture I've Found a Place of Pure Delight, while the chorus, never better, delivered a superb vocal performance.

Sue Lepage’s sets and costumes are stylish and functional, the bi-level staging works well allowing the 1980 narrative performance to take place below the chronicled action. Background projections depict everything from street scenes to gushing rivers. One of the most fascinating props ever seen on the Q.E. stage is a vintage 1978 Datsun pick-up truck that rolls back and forth on the stage.

When John Estacio and John Murrell came out onto the stage to bask in the audience’s applause along with the cast, it marked the end of their four-year journey. Vancouver Opera should be commended for their vision and courage in bringing this exciting event to Vancouver opera lovers.

© 2010 John Jane