Tragedy Makes for the Peak of Drama
‘Everest’ tells the true story of three climbers trapped on that mountain in a blizzard in May 1996.
By Heidi Waleson
‘Everest,” a remarkable first opera by the British composer Joby Talbot, which had its world premiere at the Dallas Opera on Friday, forges art from a contemporary tragedy. Based on the true story of three climbers trapped on Mount Everest in a blizzard in May 1996 (the expedition that was chronicled by Jon Krakauer in “Into Thin Air”), this 70-minute juggernaut makes you feel disturbingly in the moment, living—and dying—along with the characters.
Gene Scheer’s taut, streamlined libretto, drawn from interviews with survivors, focuses on two situations: Rob Hall (the expedition leader) and Doug Hansen push on to the summit even though Doug is unwell, and Beck Weathers stays behind and gets lost. The fragmentation of the narrative builds suspense, and the stories are welded together by a chorus that echoes and questions the climbers. It also counts out the minutes of that fateful day—“2:59. 3:06. 3:12”—a flat rendition of time ticking away, when every second matters for survival. Only at the end do we understand, chillingly, that the chorus represents the spirits of those who have died on Everest, and that “it’s time to add another name.”
This is no heroic narrative. The motivations of the climbers are often dark: Doug sings, “I wanted the pain of wanting this to go away forever”; Beck relates how only extreme activity can free him from the “black dog” of depression. Yet we also hear the ecstatic side of the journey from the hallucinating Beck, who talks about the stars being so close that it is “like walking inside the Milky Way.” The people back home—Beck’s young daughter, Meg, and Rob’s pregnant wife, Jan—supply another perspective on these driven men, and how far away they are from everyday life.
The opera begins with the sound of static, and then a single pitch rises gradually out of the orchestra, led with verve and precision by Nicole Paiement. Snippets of music come together into a groan, like the ominous voice of the mountain. Mr. Talbot has a gift for tension and pacing, and he knows when to let the orchestra roar and heave (the repeated percussive figure as the storm hits), and when to make it beautiful (the arpeggios as Beck describes the sunrise). He also knows when to rein it in. When Rob calls down to the base camp, “Can anyone hear me?” the orchestra goes silent. Doug is dead; it is clear that soon Rob will be too.
The excellent cast made fine work of Mr. Talbot’s expressive vocal writing. Andrew Bidlack’s sweet tenor brought a touching vulnerability to Rob. The opera’s most devastating passage was his final telephone conversation with Jan, the powerful Sasha Cooke, as he is dying on the mountain, when the two let go of their anguish to simply comfort each other. Kevin Burdette was colorful as Beck, who, against all odds, saves himself; Craig Verm was effective as the failing Doug; and Julia Rose Arduino was a piquant, jump-roping Meg, whose image draws her father back from the brink. Solo moments with chorus, and ensembles such as the quartet of Rob, Doug, Jan and Beck singing “Too easy to die,” made for additional vocal variety, and the contrast of in-the-moment suspense with Beck’s surreal imaginings built a sense of complex, all-encompassing tragedy.
Leonard Foglia’s staging brilliantly captured the immediacy and peril of the piece. The singers had to clamber around Robert Brill’s towering, suspended set, made of large cubes jumbled atop each other, and you could feel their difficulty in getting from one to the next. Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections of contour maps, swirling snow flakes, even colored microscope slides (Beck, a pathologist, has a delirious aria about them) animated the scenes, as did Christopher Akerlind’s moody lighting and David C. Woolard’s apt costumes.
Although it is relatively short, “Everest” needed no companion piece, but the company chose to open the evening with Act IV from Alfredo Catalani’s “La Wally” (1892). The surface commonalities between the two (there’s a mountain, and people die on it) could not make up for the weakness of the earlier opera and the startlingly amateurish quality of its production.
“La Wally” is a verismo diva vehicle and the company decided to graft its most famous moment, the Act I aria “Ebben, ne andrò lontana,” onto the beginning of Act IV to give the soprano more to do, and perhaps to remind us of the 1981 cult movie “Diva” in which it played a central role. The original soprano and tenor both dropped out of the project, requiring some last-minute replacements, and while Mary Elizabeth Williams acquitted herself respectably as Wally, Rodrigo Garciarroyo bellowed and wobbled fearsomely as her sometime beloved Giuseppe. Anthony Barrese was the tub-thumping conductor. Director Candace Evans was presumably responsible for the semaphoric acting style; the “Everest” design team supplied an amateurish collection of slopes that looked like high-school sets; and Wally appeared perilously underdressed for mountaineering in an evening gown and cloak. If nothing else, this dubious exercise demonstrated that a well-executed contemporary opera is much more exciting and immediate than the artifice of bottom-drawer 19th-century repertoire.
Ms. Waleson writes about opera for the Journal.