Chicago Opera Theater Presents Double Bill EVEREST/ALEKO Review – Because It’s There

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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.

Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Andrew Bidlack (Rob Hall)

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? 

Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Dancer Jose Soares

 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.

Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Aleksey Bogdanov (Beck Weathers)

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.

Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Aleksey Bogdanov (Beck Weathers)

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 EVEREST ALEKO
Dancers (Romani), Gustav Andreassen (Old Gypsy), Ola Rafalo (Old Gypsy Woman), Aleksy Bogdanov (Aleko). On floor: Michelle Johnson (Zemfira) and Andrew Bidlack (Young Gypsy)

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.”

Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Dancers (Romani) look on as Ola Rafalo (Old Gypsy Woman) and Gustav Andreassen (Old Gypsy) and crouch over Michelle Johnson (Zemfira). More dancers (Romani) hold Aleksey Bogdanov (Aleko) back
Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Aleksey Bogdanov (Aleko)
Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Michelle Johnson (Zemfira), Andrew Bidlack (Young Gypsy)
Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Michelle Johnson (Zemfira).
Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
A&A Ballet Dancers (Jonathan Carter, Jose Soares, Tricia Camody , Abigail Dudich, Gabriel Hartman, Sara Jaworski, Autumn Steed, Kaylie Thrun
Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Chorus and orchestra, conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya.
Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Aleksey Bogdanov (Aleko)
Chicago Opera Theater EVEREST ALEKO
Gustav Andreassen (Old Gypsy).


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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


Aleko..............................Aleksey Bogdanov
Zemfira ..............................Michelle Johnson
Young Gypsy ..............................Andrew Bidlack
Old Gypsy .............................. Gustav Andreassen
Old Gypsy Woman .............................. Ola Rafalo


Aleko..................Nicolai Janitzky
Zemfira ..................Samantha Schmid*
Young Gypsy ..................William Ottow*
Old Gypsy .................. Ryan Stoll*
Old Gypsy Woman..................Morgan Middleton*

Production team:

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
Choreographer........Alexei Kremnev
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

Violin I
Pasquale Laurino+
Patrick Rafferty
Katherine Hughes
John Xia
Tom Yang
Eleanor Bartsch
Jeri Lou Zike
Francois Henkins
Rika Seko
Lori Ashikawa

Violin II
Elizabeth Huffman*
Eric Pidluski
Kamen Vatchev
Erica Carpendo
Carol Yampolsky
Sharon Chang
Andrea Tolzman
Caroline Slack
Elizabeth Choi

Anne Marie Brink*
Bonnie Yeager
Ben Weber
Ai Melby
Oana Tatu
Dominick Johnson
Lerryn Donatelle

Gene Collerd*

Clarinet II: E b& Bass
Barbara Drapcho

Clarinet III: Bass & Contrabass
Dan Won

Vincent Disantis*

Karl Rzasa

French Horn
Steven Replogle*
Dan O'Connell
Sharon Jones
Mary Buscanics

Ross Beacraft*
Christian Anderson
Matthew Lee

Adam Moen*
Rachel Castellanos

Matthew Agnew*
Sara Sitzer
Michelle Bach
Victor Sotelo
Jean Hatmaker
Wei Denton

Tim Shaffer*
Jonathan Cegys
Jason Niehoff
Tracy Dullea

Mary Stolper*

Eliza Bangert

Flute/Piccolo Alto
Scott Metlicka

Grace Hong*

Oboe II
Anna Velzo

Oboe/English Horn
Joseph Claude

Bass Trombone
Robin Shulze

Charlie Schuchat

Ben Melsky

Michael Folker

George Blanchet
Brandon Podjasek
Tina Laughlin
Sean Kopp

Patricia Lee

Elena Kholodova

Ross Beacraf


Daniel Aguirre+
Emma Andelson+
Melissa Anderson+
Katie Baar+
Joe Barss+
Alyssa Bennett
Cassie Bennett+
Warnell Berry+
Achilles Bezanis
Derek Boemler
Jeff Boyce+
Cody Bradley+
David Braverman+
Evan Bravos
Kristen Bruckbauer+
Andy Bullock+
Mary Burt+
Stephen Carver+
Jenna Cataldi+
German Abril Cerezo+
Jenna Cohen+
Megan Colins+
Matthew Cummings
Sam Curry+
Beena David
Roz DeBoer+
Sarah Ennis+
Teniya Farnandis+
Kelly Ferguson+
Andrew Fisher
Leigh Folta
Michelle Ford+
Laura Fosler+
Sean Francis+
Collen Froehlicher+

Tamara Fusselmari+
Rosa Maria Gavira+
Amanda Geha+
Jacob Goldstein+
Keith Goodwin+
Rob Graettinger+
Rianna (Ri) Greer+
Ariana Grey-Be+
Sam Grosby
Vinnie Gumlich+
Joe Guthridge+
Julia Hardin
Kieley Harrington+
Johanna Hauki+
Kathy Hayevsky+
Dirk Hoffman+
Anne Holton+
Paul Hunter
Steven Hyder
Catherine Jaicks+
Kali Jankovich+
Alfredo Jimenez
Eric Johnson+
Mary Johnson+
Leigh Jurecka+
Anna Kahriman+
Lauren Kelly
Volker Kleinschmidt+
Gaby Klugman+
Beth Kregor+
Erich Kurshat+
Dave Laskowski+
Katelyn Lee
Elizabeth Lerum+
Rachel Levin+

Kara Lilliwitz+
Tony Locatelli+
Kelly Lockerbie+
James Lopez+
Chelsea Lyons
Sean Mallory+
Leslie Manfredo+
Mary Marvin+
John Mathieu*
Christine May+
Jim May+
Jennifer Merry+
Morgan Middleton*
Daniel Miller+
Susan Miller+
Eric Miranda
Amanda Moeller+
Madeline Morris+
Amanda Moswin+
Art Moswin+
Julie Mucillo+
Susan Nelson
William Ottow*
Janelle Pasch+
Aissa Perez+
Katy Poorman+
Bahareh Poureslami
Josh Pritchett
Leo Radosavljevic
Alaina Rafferty+
Renee Ramsey+
Kristen Reid+
Paul Reineck+

Will Roberts
Diane Robinson+
Amy Rodhe+
Heather Saliny+
Samantha Schmid*
Scott Schneider+
John Schwartz+
Aimee Scozzafave+
Joe Shachter+
Lauren Shachter+
Paul Shradrake+
Sierra Shum+
Brian Shumaker+
Maria Smith+
Youngbin Song+
Emma Sorenson
Joan Sporny+
Sarah Steffens+
Ryan Stoll*
Ashley Stopczynski+
Nathan Taylor
Justin Taylor+
Ruth Thuston+
Rick Tonielli+
Alissa Ursiny+
Emma Vis+
Paul Wagner+
Aaron Wardell
Karen Weinberg+
Peter Wesoloski
Gwenan Wilbur+
Caity Willox+
Calder Wishne+
Katherine Woodrow

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.

Watch this video showing the TOP PICK PLAYS of 2019

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

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.


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2 thoughts on “Chicago Opera Theater Presents Double Bill EVEREST/ALEKO Review – Because It’s There

  1. Amy, your reviews of Everest and Aleko are spot on – and beautifully descriptive. I was in the audience on Sunday and Everest blew me and my friend away. A-mazing in every aspect. I saw Lidiya Yankovskaya last summer at the Saratoga Opera Festival conducting modern opera. She is a living genius. This young woman on stage here at COT with the huge Apollo Chorus, the orchestra, the ballet and the opera performers. We need to feature her in some way.

    1. Thanks Ann- and thanks too for your note that there are 300 shirts that comprise the screen for the projections. We checked with COT General Manager Chris Thoren who says indeed they are 300 shirts- representing the 300 souls lost on Mount Everest.

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