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Reimagined journey of an enigmatic woman makes for engaging opera

A scene from Lillian Alling

Tim Matheson

Lillian Alling

Music by John Estacio, libretto by John Murrell Vancouver Opera

Conductor Jacques Lacombe; director Kelly Robinson

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Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver Saturday

Lillian Alling was a real person - a Russian immigrant who walked across North America, starting in New York City in 1927, passing through North Dakota and up into Canada, determined to get back home, on foot, across the Bering Strait.

Arrested in northern British Columbia just as the cold weather was setting in, she was sent back to Vancouver, where she was incarcerated in Oakalla Prison Farm for the winter. Lillian Alling headed north again after she was released, and was last sighted the following spring in Whitehorse. Nobody knows for sure anything more than that.

One can imagine composers for whom that might be enough of a story for an opera, but it might be a very different kind of opera than what composer John Estacio and librettist John Murrell have made with their Lillian Alling, a new work commissioned by Vancouver Opera and performed for the first time on Saturday at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Murrell's libretto takes that enigmatic skeleton of a tale and puts flesh on it, inventing a past for Alling, giving her a reason for her obsessive journey, and populating the journey with people she meets along the way, including a man to love. We also hear part of the tale through the reminiscences of an old woman named Irene who once knew Lillian Alling.

Murrell has done what writers of opera have done since the 17th century - ensured a variety of emotional situations for a variety of singers, and given us a problem to solve and a solution.

Estacio's music is easy to read. If a character mentions a train, the orchestra mentions it, too, with a whistle in the winds and a chug of rhythm underneath. Birds sing, cities thrum, sunshine opens up in bright, broad consonant chords, and young Brooklyn males sing in raggy syncopations.

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Estacio is stingy with dissonance, preferring to use orchestration or dynamics to darken a mood. His style is active and propellent, with short-term, motor-like ostinatos in the orchestra, a plethora of obbligato wind melodies, and surging vocal lines that launch one into the other with frequent climaxes.

There is something inherently optimistic about this music, especially in the confident reach of Estacio's vocal writing: big intervals anchored on triads, an old-fashioned, romantic rhetoric, echoes that range from Tchaikovsky to Bernstein, and mellifluous lines that flatter the singers.

In return, the singers flatter Lillian Alling. Soprano Frédérique Vézina was superb in the title role, projecting both strength and mystique in her singing (though somewhat more coquettish in gesture than the character suggests).

Mezzo-soprano Judith Forst was, as ever, emotionally arresting, her performance one long, gradual deepening of Irene's character.

Aaron St. Clair Nicholson's warm baritone made Scotty MacDonald a likeable and passionate love interest; Colin Ainsworth enlivened several minor roles with his gorgeous tenor; Thomas Goerz's rolling bass-baritone perfectly caught the brutal energy of the nefarious Joséf; and Roger Honeywell made the most of his role as Irene's handsome son, Jimmy, though I found Estacio's vocal writing for this role strained.

The crowd scenes had a convivial bustle, and the orchestra, conducted by Jacques Lacombe, moved the action swiftly, smoothly, cleanly.

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The set, designed by Sue LePage, comprised a double set of modernist stairs to an upper level and background projections, on a majestic scale, of old New York, Vancouver, and - most often - the British Columbia wilderness. The latter, in particular, reinforced the opera's aura of not attempting to be more than it was.

There's nothing radical about Lillian Alling, but it's engaging, accessible, touching and well crafted, and Vancouver Opera has graced it with an excellent production.

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