Dallas — The Dallas Opera presented a world premiere on Friday at the Winspear Opera House: Everest by first-time opera composer Joby Talbot on a libretto by the highly experienced librettist Gene Scheer. It is based on the tragic events surrounding an ill-fated expedition to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain in 1996.
Since it is in one act, albeit a long one at 70-plus minutes, it is paired with the last act of an 1892 opera that has fallen into benign neglect except for one wildly popular aria. That would be Alfredo Catalani’s creaky La Wally. It is based on the mostly true story of a fireclay independent woman in a small village in the Austrian Alps as exaggerated in the romance novel Die Geier-Wally (The Vulture Maiden) by Wilhelmine von Hillern. La Wally and her true love, through misunderstandings and jealous fury, also lie frozen on a mountaintop like Everest’s unfortunate climbers.
The two operas make for a somewhat disorienting Janus-like trip from the past to the present. But as such, the evening vividly demonstrated the path of opera in the last 100 or so years.
When it was all over, Everest has to be considered a resounding success, a genre-bending coup de théâtre. It is almost unclassifiable. It is certainly operatic in its vocal writing and that it is sung throughout. Yet, it has much in common with experimental theater. La Wally is definitely an opera and this production succeeds, but confirms the judgment of history.
For Everest, Sheer’s libretto boils down the story to the relationship between three of the characters on the expedition: Rob Hall (the world-famous Everest guide) and two of his clients, pathologist Beck Weathers and postal worker Doug Hansen. Hansen failed in his last attempt to reach the summit and Hall convinced him to give it another try. Thus, when Hansen is trapped by a freak storm, Hall is doubly responsible and honor-bound to try to save him. In vain, as it turns out. Both remain forever frozen on Everest’s pitiless slope, frustratingly close to the summit they achieved in the hours before their deaths. Beck survives and was present with his wife and daughter on opening night.
Scheer’s libretto, derived from a series of in-person interviews with those involved, isn’t easy to follow. His stream-of-consciousness, time-jumping treatment of the story divides it up into a series of snapshots, not necessarily shown in chronological order. Also, he offers little in the way of clues as to who is who, but you do catch on eventually, especially if you know the basic story ahead of time. Some explanatory projected supertitles at the beginning are very helpful; more along the way would be even better.
A synopsis in the program would have been the most helpful, enhancing the involvement of the audience right from the start. Its absence is puzzling. Opera programs always have a synopsis, even for well-worn and familiar classics like Madame Butterfly.
At subsequent viewings of the opera, the aforementioned problems should vanish. It should be easier to follow along when you already know the identity the parka-clad characters. Once that initial confusion is sorted out, the magnitude of Scheer's accomplishment becomes readily apparent. He condenses a complex and deadly situation, involving dozens of people and a time period of weeks, into a mere 70 minutes. Eschewing extraneous events and characters, Scheer concentrates on the crux of the chronicle through short and discrete interactions—like snapshots, which do not require viewing in chronological order.
Paralleling the expedition itself, the libretto climbs up a dramatic arch to its own summit. Once there, it is not exaltation we experience. No, instead we are confronted with that pivotal instant, ruinous in its repercussions, when all fates were sealed by the disastrous decision to go on. From there, Sheer's libretto begins its inexorable descent to the inevitable result.
Talbot’s music is a wonder: more impressive to hear than to see on paper. His lack of experience in writing an opera freed him from all convention, allowing him to create something unique. He doesn’t just break the rules of opera writing; he completely ignores them. He relegates such traditions to a display case in some musical museum—archaic and useless in today’s theatrical world.
What he does is build a soundscape, a sonic construct made up of three layers—two in the orchestra and one on the stage. The first orchestral one is a relatively standard minimalist score, similar to the operas of Philip Glass, which serves as the foundation. He writes the usual ever-changing patterns of consonant chords that undulate and repeat.
Over that, he lays the second layer, harmonically synchronized to the first, which are the speech-driven vocal lines. Sometimes they are lyrical and other times angular. The duet that ends the opera is as poignant and heartbreaking as any to be found in a three-hanky romantic opera.
Talbot’s innovation is to lay a third musical line in-between these two. It is a musical anthropomorphism of Everest itself, bringing the mountain alive and into the opera as an active character. This line is wildly dissonant and unpredictable. Winds howl, glaciers groan, violent storms rage, crystalline ice formations crackle and, in a moment of silence, recreate the frozen and very high-pitched harmonic of a world insulated by snow and ice. Sometimes the mountain’s voice overwhelms the other musical lines, just as it overwhelms the puny humans crawling around on its majestic surface. Other times, the mountain’s voice retreats and lets us pause to rest in the relative peace of a simple major chord.
Given the nature of the score, balancing these three musical elements so that each one comes forward at its assigned time and then retreats, allowing another to take over, is a superhuman endeavor. This charge falls to conductor Nicole Paiement, who brilliantly weaves Talbot’s warp and woof into what can only be called a soundscape of Everest, of those who try to master its difficulties and of those who wait anxiously at home.
On some occasions, Talbot’s thick and often doubled orchestration makes Paiement’s job more difficult than it needs to be. It is here that Talbot reveals that this is his first opera. Dense orchestrations, whether quiet or not, leave little room for the voices to fit into the already crowded harmonic spectrum. This is not a worry when writing a ballet or film score, at which Talbot excels, but it is in the case of vocal music. In anticipation of placing the opera in less skillful hands than Paiement’s, thinning out some of the doublings may improve future performances.
There is an exceptionally strong cast of singers and all are excellent, although they are a little hard to differentiate all bundled up in their bulky parkas.
Bass Kevin Burdette plays Dallasite Beck Weathers, a pathologist who is the only survivor of the three main characters. He spent many hours in a coma on the slope from which he eventually awoke. He staggered back to camp: disoriented, hallucinating and temporarily blind. Burdette’s voice is deep and resonant but his portrayal is a bit too hale and hardy for someone in his dire situation. However, his hallucination that he is back home at a barbeque is quite well done.
Tenor Andrew Bidlack is sympathetic as Rob Hall, trapped between his sense of duty and impending fatherhood. His clear and versatile lyric tenor voice sails through his range-challenging music, with great nobility of spirit alternating with grim determination.
Baritone Craig Verm is wonderful as Doug Hansen. His regret in causing Hall’s death, as well as his own by his stubborn refusal to turn back when there was still time, is almost too terrible to experience when expressed in a quiet and defeated “I’m sorry.”
Mezzo–soprano Sasha Cooke is amazing in her stoic portrayal of Rob Hall’s wife, Jan. She is eight months pregnant and waiting at home in New Zealand—knowing in her heart the final outcome. Cooke warms her voice to convey her love and positive attitude when talking with Hall through a radio/satellite hooked-up phone call that ends the opera. However, you can tell that she is putting on a brave face. The role feels like it is a little high for a mezzo and for no apparent reason. Keeping her in an extreme range buys nothing as far as characterization goes. However, she does a wonderful job coping with the vocal lines. She gets the best music in the opera.
The other ancillary roles are all ably handled as well. They are Mark McCrory as Mike, John Boehr as Guy and Julia Rose Arduino as the vision of Weathers’ young daughter, Meg.
The opera is staged on a stunningly effective cubist/abstract set that completely fills the stage of the Winspear Opera House from top to bottom and side to side. Designed by Robert Brill, the helter-skelter white cubes are big enough to allow for real mountain climbing to get from one to the other.
Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections on the cubes bring us the scenery—real and imaginary. We see the jagged cliffs of Everest as well as the blindingly clear night sky as seen from almost 30,000 feet above the earth. That is higher than a passenger jet flies.
Christopher Akerlind’s sensitive lighting illuminates the action without interfering with the dramatic projections.
The small chorus, which comments and adds atmosphere, represents almost invisible spirits, dressed as they are in head-to-toe white. Maybe they are the ghosts of those climbers claimed by the mountain, or the spirit of the mountain itself. Whatever they are, they are very effective and excellently trained by chorus master Alexander Rom.
Stage director Leonard Foglia is to be praised for all of these sharply drawn characterizations. He also does a fine job of disbursing everyone across the vast expanse of boxes that make up the set.
There isn’t nearly as much to say about La Wally. The opera only has one claim to fame, but it is a doozy: the meltingly beautiful aria "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" (“Alright? I’ll go far away”). Every soprano worthy of the term has recorded it, because it is very lovely but also because it is a great show piece for a singer with glorious floating pianissimo high notes.
The famous aria, which is in the first act in the score, is added in here as a prelude for two reasons. One is that we want to hear it and our disappointment would be great if it was missing. The other use for it here is to explain who this woman is and why is she alone in the mountains of the Alps.
Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams is wonderful as La Wally. Her voice is huge; awesome in its size. In fact, it is so much bigger than either of the other two singers on stage, who also have substantial instruments, that she sounds like she is wearing a body microphone and the others are not. (She isn’t.)
It is also a voice of great beauty. She is able to spin out fabulous high floating pianissimo lines as well as stentorian high notes.
Rodrigo Garciarroyo has a fine spinto tenor voice and it is not his fault that it pales next to Williams’ trumpet in their extended duet. Jenifer Chung is convincing as a male in the part of La Wally’s only loyal friend, Walter.
Robert Brill’s set trades Everest’s boxes for three huge two-dimensional triangles that represent the Alps. Hidden staircases allow La Wally to get above stage level, but it looks unrealistic to the audience to see her walking upwards behind the slope. Maybe that is the point.
The avalanche is created by another of McCarthy’s magical projections. It is shown on a gossamer curtain that falls away and is a very effect piece of stage business. The difficulty of producing an avalanche on stage is one of the reasons the opera is not performed all than often. This is a very creative solution to that problem.
Since this act is basically just one extended duet, there is little for the highly creative director Candace Evans to do. However, she manages to keep us riveted on the two singers, using minimal movements, by directing all the passion into the vocal performances and facial acting. That said, her clever and subtle staging prevents the scene from becoming static.
Costumer David C. Woollard does a fine job with Giuseppe, but inexplicably dresses La Wally in what appears to be a satin nightie with a frilly dressing gown from Victoria’s Secret. Not what the tomboyish La Wally would wear when going out to live in the Alps forever.
Conductor Anthony Barrese didn’t have the complex score that was handed to Paiement with Everest, but verismo opera has its own difficulties, mostly in the constant use of rubato. While there were some ragged entrances, he did a fine job with the other elements. He was on top of the text, breathed with the singers and achieved a decent balance between the pit and the stage.
Some final thoughts: Everest now belongs to the opera world and this judgment, along with all of the others, will soon be irrelevant (if it isn’t already). Overhearing comments when leaving the Winspear, you could tell that many were impressed and profoundly moved (including this writer) while some others found the new opera a bit obtuse and a hair too long.
Further, this TDO effort is such a unified production that it is difficult to predict how it will fare in other hands, on different sets and with less accomplished singers, conductors and stage directors. Whatever the fate of Everest in the future, which I predict will be successful, here, and in this production, it is a triumph and we are fortunate to have been able to experience it.
Reviewing a world premiere is always a risky affair. Usually, for unfathomable reasons, critics are barred from rehearsals and given scant access to what we will eventually have to write about on one hearing. You would think that composers would want us to hear it a number of times before making such an important judgment. Alas, such is not the case. Perhaps this is why musical history is replete with critical faux pas and now amusing misjudgments.
My favorite is: “La Boheme…will leave no great trace upon the history of our lyric theater.”
This pronouncement comes from the very well known critic Carlo Baraezio. What? Never heard of him? Me neither. But Boheme? You’ve probably heard of that.