By Patrick O’Brien
The wit’s definition of opera is when someone sings out despite succumbing to stab wounds or explosive tuberculosis. What would that same wit make of Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest, an opera that, in concerning a disastrous mountaineering expedition, involves a lack of oxygen, the very stuff of singing out?
The wit may, for once, be lost for words, for Everest can’t be neatly filed away in a single sentence. Hell, for Chicago Opera Theater’s production, it could barely be tucked in the Harris Theater, where, upon entering, jagged scaffolding broke the proscenium, and a chorus at least a hundred strong began to assemble in full view. For a one-act of such obviously colossal scope and ambition — for a composer’s operatic debut, at that — Everest is freakishly assured, and, as it transpires, justifiably so.
Given the events that inspired the opera are just more than 20 years old (and documented in Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air), Maestra Lidiya Yankovskaya makes especial praise of the opera’s plainspoken appeal. And these are people to like, even as they answer the inexplicable call to tackle nature or die trying. But librettist Scheer’s most attractive invention is to give it some magic. He gives voice to Everest itself.
As sung by the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, the old mountain is a beguiling mystery the depths of which only the few who’ve tried to climb it can begin to fathom; a siren that counts down its unlucky victims’ last minutes; a sage who asks whether they even counted those minutes before their fate was sealed. And no joke: that chorus is a hundred-strong, so that sound lands like a boulder. Quite the sound, too. Talbot’s score is as harmonically arresting as it is casually form-bending — it’s as much an opera as it is an oratorio as it is a tone poem as it is an electronica soundscape as it is a film score for the stage.
And of course they got the singers for it, two of them from the company’s other stellar debut of Moby Dick earlier this year. Andrew Bidlack returns as doomed mountain guide Rob Hall and returns to our sights as a fellow to watch. Even as he lays dying in a niche, singing an oblique farewell to his expectant wife (Zoie Reams) via satellite phone, them hills is alive and ringing. Inversely, rugged Aleksey Bogdanov finds the power to descend the mountain from his precarious perch and to fill the Harris.
Everest as an opera takes us to that great verge that can only be explored in opera, and the house was given over to its spell completely. Thus, its follow-up on the bill, Rachmaninoff’s ALEKO, couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown.
Well-sung, for sure; Bogdanov and Bidlack reprised their roles as the surly outsider and the equally doomed young lover of Aleko’s bride, respectively. Logical, for sure; it has just about the same number of key parts as Everest. Sensible, for sure; Maestra Yankovskaya has the rein to bring the repertoire of her homeland to Chicago. Colorful, for sure, drawn as it is Russia’s poet laureate Alexander Pushkin and his oft-adapted poem The Gypsies, as well as designs suggested by Romani painter Henrik Kallai.
But hearing the Apollo Chorus switch at intermission from a deadly siren call of the world’s tallest mountain to stock Peasants on the Green — or seeing a triptych of deeply personal contemporary lives switch over to a Doomed Love Triangle — couldn’t help but underscore how conventional this selection felt. Granted, this could be a function of the composer’s tender age when he wrote it; Rachmaninoff wrote it for his graduation from the conservatory in his late teens. And, to be fair, the muscles he would use to grab Russia and make it pay attention start to flex themselves here.
Even so, what, thematically speaking, bound these two one-acts together? “What takes humanity to the brink,” perhaps, but, as a gentler wit might proffer, that may be the central question of every opera.
Chicago Opera Theater’s “Everest/Aleko” closed at the Harris Theater on Sunday, November 17.