Commissioned five years ago from librettist John Murrell and composer John Estacio, this Vancouver Opera-Banff Centre co-production was part of Vancouver Operas 50th-anniversary celebrations. Murrell based his libretto on the sketchy factual story of a Russian immigrant who. in the late 1920s, set out alone to walk back to Russia from New York via the Prairies, B.C.'s Telegraph Trail and Alaska. Did she make it? Well, her trail petered out towards the Bering Strait and no one really knows.
The story is fraught with such tantalizing gaps, which Murrell has filled with quite plausible fictions. He gives Ailing a love interest, for instance, and a compelling reason for embarking on her colossal pilgrimage: she is pursuing the elusive Jozef Lazinsky. her ostensible betrothed.
Lillian Alling begins in the 1980s. Elderly Irene is being driven by her son, Jimmy, from her cabin in hinterland B.C. to .1 care home in Vancouver. She feels urgently compelled to tell him about Alling, whom she met more than 50 years earlier. Irene's story unfolds as the onstage '70s Datsun truck Jimmy is driving weaves its way through the wilderness, adroitly depicted by Sean Nieuwenhuis and Tim Matheson's video projections. These fade away and the truck disappears as characters from years ago materialize from the stage wings to enact the episodes of Irenes story in flashbacks. The story's momentum flags a little in Act I, but with its genuinely surprising ending, Act II makes a brilliant conclusion.
From Brooklyn streets to B.C.'s notorious Oakalla Prison Farm (where the real Ailing did some time) to remote northern wilderness, Sue LePage's impressive, multi-level set evoked the locales of Alling's story with potent theatrical realism.
It was all quite cinematographic and, like first-rate film music. Estacio's eminently listenable and evocative score adroitly underpinned the shifting emotional tides of the opera without drawing attention away from the singers and stage action. Conductor Jacques Lacombe deftly wrought an impressive array of sonorities from the orchestra and the VO chorus was splendid in Estacio's large choruses, especially the citizens' curiously cheerful ode to Vancouver rain and the prisoners' grandly sardonic "Oakalla is paradise!"
From callow immigrant fresh off the boat at Ellis Island to obsessed woman on a major mission, soprano Frederique Vezina was thoroughly prepossessing in the title role. Baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson was an ardently infatuated Scotty MacDonald and the chemistry between them was palpably believable. Tenor Roger Honeywell was a likeable, sweetvoiced Jimmy, even though his part was largely responding to Irene's utterances. In tact, the lynchpin of the whole production was Irene, sung with passionate grandeur--and possibly the clearest diction on the opera stage today--by mezzo Judith Forst, a stellar performance in a brand-new Canadian opera and surely one with a chance at a place in the repertory.