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John Estacio's (music) and John Murrell's (libretto) new opera "Lillian Alling" had its world premiere last Saturday, and I was very lucky to have seen the second performance tonight. Almost entirely in the lyric tradition, it has an edge-of-the-seat story and a structure that teases and draws it out, plus it's been given a brilliant physical production and direction. What's impressive about the score is that it doesn't try to impress the audience with the composer's encyclopedic knowledge of two centuries of musical style all in one work.

The center of the set by Sue LePage is a raised triangular wedge with a wide screen behind it for projections. Below it are doors from which a yellow pickup truck rolls out on stage from under the wedge or recedes back under. On either side is another platform with a narrower screen. Descending from the wedge are two sets of stairs of irregular shapes and size curving around like parentheses. These are on wheels, and are moved in and out simply and quickly. Under the wider stairs are the frames of indoor spaces.

The story is structured around a feisty, wry elderly woman, Irene, sung and acted by Judith Forst, who has lived and raised her son, Jimmy, in a cabin in the BC wilderness -- the boy's father died when he was too young to remember his father -- and is now being driven to an assisted care facility in Vancouver by her son; she shows her unhappiness at this turn of events with a wicked sense of humor. In a last pass through the cabin for anything he hasn't packed into the truck, Jimmy finds a box with a perpetual motion top in it, and Irene starts to tell him the story of a woman, Lillian Alling, whom she met briefly and who had given her the top. The opera then alternates between Irene's conversations with Jimmy and the historical action.

Alling is a Russian immigrant to North America, in search of the family friend, Jozef, who arranged for her exit papers. She is fierce, fearless, and determined to find Jozef, and after entering the US through Ellis Island, she follows his journey to North Dakota and then a mining town in British Columbia, mostly on foot and almost entirely alone, always thinking about the future and her goal. At first Jimmy's not really interested, but he humors his mother during the 4-5 hour drive, and he becomes more and more interested, especially after Irene reveals that his father knew and was involved with Alling.

The use of projections is superb, always giving a great sense of place without overwhelming the stage action. There is beautiful footage of BC forest and a great sequence where Alling climbs dangerous rock formations and over some pretty shaky bridges to search for Jozef in the mining town. The most stunning, though, are shots of Stanley Park during a scene where Alling and Jimmy's father have a picnic on one of the curving step platforms, while families enjoy their picnics on the upper platforms. It's the place where Alling tells Jimmy's father the story of her past, and it's a stark contrast between the placid beauty of the park and her harrowing tale.

There are two acts over an hour apiece, yet director Kelly Robinson kept the stage action moving, blending from scene to scene. There's only one real stop in the music, after a duet in Act II. Estacio's and Murrell's structure kept the tension between Irene's narrative and her conversations with Jimmy and the historical action.

I think if 20-30 minutes were cut from it -- mainly to keep it contemporary musical length -- and a chamber version of an amplified orchestra and chorus, it could adapted for Broadway. (I suspect two of those cuts would be the "It never stops raining" and "We're ecstatic because the sun is out" choruses, which don't have the same resonance outside the Pacific Northwest.) It is alternately intense, witty, dramatic, tragic, and light. In short, it is a real weeper and a great triumph. It would be a real shame if these four performances were it.* While I thought Act I of "Moby Dick" was superb, "Lillian Alling" is the best new opera I've ever seen.

I just bought aother ticket for Saturday.

Edited to add: I just read in "Crosscut" that this is a co-production with Banff, and the opera will be presented there this summer.

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