Awake At The Sleeping Buffalo Mountain
Artistic Vision
Arts Festival
Ned Bobkoff
Part 2

Librettist John Murrell is the Artistic Director of the Banff Centre Theatre Arts program and an internationally recognized Canadian playwright. Along with Calgary composer-in-residence John Estacio, he is also the creative force behind the new opera, Filumena

Filumena was inspired by the story of Filomena Costanzo, an Italian immigrant who arrived in Alberta in the early 20th century when she was 9 years old. When she was 15, Filomena’s father arranged her marriage to an older man. Her name changed from Costanzo to Sanfide.. She also found herself married to the bootlegging business. When the couple got in trouble with the law, her husband made her change her name again - to Florence Lassandro. Florence Lassandro was one of the last women hanged for murder in Canada. Who pulled the trigger that murdered a constable investigating a bootlegging incident in Alberta in 1922 is the central focus of the work. 

John Estacio is a composer influenced by Italian opera, with its rich emotional effects and demands on singers to carry great passions. 

“I had listened to some of his music,” says Murrell, “and he had read some of my plays. But we had never met before. I tried for 20 years to get together with a composer to write an opera. Opera is a great passion of mine. And I thought, quite likely, that this is my last shot to do it. At that moment the story of Filumena Castanzo sprang into mind. I just spilled my guts and told John, what do you think of this story.” Estacio obviously thought well of it. “John and I asked the question that if you were sending a person to see an opera for the first time, an opera virgin, what kind of opera would you send them to see? That if you didn’t know a lot of the givens of opera, you nevertheless would understand the heart of the story. And it would work for opera buffs too. The music and words would be accessible and moving”. 

In her opening aria Filomena (Laura Whalen) yearns for a life “the size of storms”. 

“Filomena is coming from a place of always being and feeling like an outsider,” says Murrell. “For Filomena, storms drive away people’s pretensions, scatter the lies that people tell, and clean the air”. 

Filomena’s involvement with the leading male characters Emilio Picariello and his son Stefano fuels the plot into the climax. 

“The tie between the elder Picariello and Florence (Filamena) in our opera,” says Murrell, “is that they are both “dreamers” who dream of a better life for themselves - more self determination, more independence.”

Emilio Picariello (Gaetan Laperriere with a powerful bass voice) is a commanding Robin Hood figure in the Italian community living in the Crowsnest area of Alberta during the Canadian prohibition era. Picariello worked his way up from his former life as a coal miner into the life of an entrepreneur, and fought against the prevailing prejudices towards foreign immigrants at that time. When he got into the bootlegging business, his troubles with the law began. Picariello’s son, Stefano (David Pomeroy) marries Filomena for his own purposes. Stefano arranges for his wife to help him cross the border with illegal alcohol between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, under the nose of the border guards. 

When the elder Picariello is erroneously told that his son Stephano was shot to death by a constable at the border, his rage on hearing the news kicks off the tragedy of Filomena’s destiny. Picariello, with Filomena in tow, confronts the constable over the alleged killing of his son. Picariello reaches for his gun. Filomena grabs his hand, the gun goes off, and the constable is shot dead. 

The killing of Stefano never occurred, but the killing of the constable did. Picariello and Filomema are condemned to die by the rope around the neck. When Stefano comes to see Filomena in her cell just before the hanging, he pleads for his father’s life. Asking her to take the rap for the killing, he is willing to sacrifice his wife’s life for the life of his father. 

For Filomena this is not the signature of a Solomon’s choice. It is the signal of betrayal. Filomena refuses to lie. She who has the most to say about the killing dies without saying it. Once again an immigrant in a storm, she walks to her death courageously. 

The opera is site specific. It is song in both English and Italian. The words are projected above the stage and were must helpful during the mix of languages occuring in duet, trio and choral singing. Although I feel it was a distraction that still needs to be worked out. 

Filomena is about unfulfilled love, illegal bootlegging, resentment towards foreign immigration, and the betrayal of a woman left taking the rap. It is also about building a province, with all the conflicting emotions of idealism and greed involved. 

If you can’t afford to visit Banff, go by the light of the Aurora Borealis and get a job there. The setting and the excitement of ideas attracts youth from all over Canada and internationally. 

It’s well worth the experience.

©2003 Ned Bobkoff

Ned Bobkoff is a writer, director and teacher.
He has worked with performers from all walks of life
throughout the United States and abroad. 

Performance Photos by Donald Lee ©2003 All Rights Reserved

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