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Editor’s Note: Read the related story, “Chicago Opera Theater News – EVEREST/ALEKO Preview”.
“Because it’s there…”
So said famed mountaineer George Mallory, of Mount Everest, a Himalayan highest peak that has drawn so many to their deaths, including him in 1924. Mallory’s thoughts en toto were in some ways an early 19th century exegesis on the empty treasure of capitalism. To paraphrase, we don’t live to work and earn money. We live to live.
Perhaps, in part, this shared passion of mountaineers was immediately recognizable to composer Joby Talbot. Does a genius composer have much choice in turning on or off his drive to make a musical masterpiece? Why does the artist make art? Why does the choreographer create dance? Perhaps, reflecting on the drive of a mountaineer is like looking in the mirror for the likes of Talbot.
Talbot’s masterstroke was to realize the operatic essence of the high drama in Jon Krakauer’s famed book, Into Thin Air, which recounted a 1996 climbing expedition on Everest, during which many lost their lives.
And high drama it is! For this reviewer--- even after a second opera performance of Rachmaninov’s ALEKO, and four+ hours more of returning to life’s routines-- the flutters of anxiety of living these mountaineers’ last hours lingered. What other opera maintains high tension from beginning to end, as this armchair mountain climb?
Everest’s high drama is bookended by dancer José Soares making the groans of the famed mountain’s graves come to life. The voices of the Apollo Chorus are whispering like the sounds of wind. Chicago Opera Theater’s (COT) violins add to swirling anxiety. An oboe or flute sound emerges here and there, both muffled and screeching at once.
Meanwhile, the curious backdrop of rectangular cloths draped in rows**, come alive with the astounding projection designs that constantly morph as the story unfolds (Projection Design: Greg Mitchell). They show us winds, snow, snow blindness, night, and more snow, and more snow, and even the light show that pathologist Beck Weathers (baritone Aleksey Bogdanov) sees, as the cones of his eyes are stressed to seeming death.
It is Bogdanov’s strong baritone that first grabs, seeming to shake us by the shoulders to give this tragic tale its due. His powerful voice cuts through the orchestra and chorus’ sounds of swirling anxiety. Librettist Gene Scheer gives a program book shout out to real world Weathers, one of the many he interviewed in his preparations for this libretto. A physically compromised Weathers had been left below the summit to wait for the other climbers’ return. His anguish at feeling so close to death’s door peppers the story, as does his finale, “..the cavalry is not going to come” rallying cry to himself, to somehow find his way to safety by his lonesome.
We share their last moments with those not as lucky as Weathers. Defeat doesn’t come any plainer than when baritone Zachary Nelson, playing Doug Hansen, finds himself unable to take one more step. That’s but a warm-up for the dagger in heart that comes when expedition leader Rob Hall, performed by tenor Andrew Bidlack, sings his farewell to his 7-month pregnant wife Jan Arnold, performed by mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams.
Tympani rolls ratchet up the tension again and again. Oboes cry. Strings and chorus are both mountain and wind. Sheer’s libretto reminds we are short of oxygen and can’t breathe. Lasers seem to cut through the projected ice to create landlocked icebergs.
Dancer Soares returns to take on the same rounded form as one of the Caldor-style icebergs in a stage left mobile sculpture, that initially greeted us as we entered Harris Theater. He is crouched into a ball. His hands stretch fingers wide as if in pain before he folds them within his form. It’s as though he is giving shape to the bodies buried in Everest’s memory.
This reviewer doesn’t think it possible to overstate the power of Everest. This is only the fourth performance of the opera. Without benefit of lush scenery – or perhaps without its distraction- Chicago Opera Theater, under the baton of Lidiya Yankovskaya, yet again astounds.
Chicago Opera Theater Pairs New Work with Rachmaninov’s First Opera
All of the principal singers in Everest are top tier talents that could enliven any of the world’s opera stages. How amazing to think that better hearing these voices was probably the best aspect of genius Rachmaninov’s Aleko, the short opera that followed Everest after intermission. Here we not only heard the sweetness of Bidlack’s tenor, and again the power of Bogdanov’s baritone, but also standout performances by soprano Michelle Johnson and bass Gustav Andreassen. Silly but true, this reviewer--- who imagines many in the Harris Theater felt similarly—would want to give Rachmaninov’s ghost an encouraging pat on the back explanation of why we had difficulty paying attention, saying , “Hey, no worries. Everest is just a tough act to follow.”
Music by Joby Talbot
Libretto by Gene Scheer
Based on the events chronicled in Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Rob Hall Andrew Bidlack
Beck Weathers Aleksey Bogdanov
Doug Hansen Zachary Nelson
Jan Arnold Zoie Reams
Meg Weathers Anna Laurenzo
Rob Hall ....... William Ottow*
Beck Weathers ....... Mark Stingley
Doug Hansen ....... John Mathieu*
Jan Arnold, Meg Weathers ....... Morgan Middleton*
Music by Sergei Rachmaninov
Libretto by Vladimir Nemirovech Danchenko
Based on poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin
Jonathan Carter, Tricia Carmody, Abigail Dudich, Gabriel Hartman, Sara Jaworski, Autumn Steed, Kaylie Thrun
Zemfira ..............................Michelle Johnson
Young Gypsy ..............................Andrew Bidlack
Old Gypsy .............................. Gustav Andreassen
Old Gypsy Woman .............................. Ola Rafalo
Zemfira ..................Samantha Schmid*
Young Gypsy ..................William Ottow*
Old Gypsy .................. Ryan Stoll*
Old Gypsy Woman..................Morgan Middleton*
Conductor........ Lidiya Yankovskaya
Stage Director........ Dylan Evans
Scenic Designers........ Olga Maslova, Greg Mitchell
Costume Designer........ Olga Maslova
Projection Designer........ Greg Mitchell
Lighting Designer/Lighting Director........ David Lee Bradke
Production Stage Manager........ Anya Plotkin
Chorus Master........ Stephen Alltop
Violence Design .......R&D Choreography (Victor Bayona, Nic James Cabrera, and Rick Gilbert)
Assistant Conductor........ Josh Quinn
Répétiteur........ Elena Kholodova
Diction Coach ........ Lisa Zilberman
Assistant Director ........ Russell Wustenberg
Assistant Stage Managers ........ Jonathan Campbell, Maxwell Rosenberg
Assistant Costume, Wig, & Makeup Designer ........ Melissa Hall
Costume Constructor ........ Tatiana Korzyuk
Technical Director ........ Joseph Staffa
Props Supervisor ........ Mitchell Ransdell
Wardrobe Supervisor ........ Brenda Winstead
Wig & Makeup Supervisor ........ Rebecca A. Scot
Jeri Lou Zike
Anne Marie Brink*
Clarinet II: E b& Bass
Clarinet III: Bass & Contrabass
German Abril Cerezo+
Rosa Maria Gavira+
Rianna (Ri) Greer+
Note: This will soon be added to the upcoming Picture this Post YouTube video of best plays in Chicago, November, 2019. Look for it on the Picture This Post YouTube Channel.
For information on Chicago Opera Theater’s upcoming performances visit the Chicago Opera Theater website.
**Subsequent to publishing this review, COT's spokesman clarifies that these "cloths" are actually shirts- - 300 in number, representing the 300 souls lost to Mount Everest.
Photos by Michael Brosilow