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In Review > North America

Everest La Wally 

DALLAS
Dallas Opera
1/30/15

In Review Dallas Everest hdl 415
Burdette in Foglia’s world-premiere production for Dallas Opera
© Karen Almond/Dallas Opera 2015
In Review Dallas Everest lg 415
Bidlack and Cooke, above, Rob Hall and Jan Arnold in Everest
© Karen Almond/Dallas Opera 2015
In Review La Wally Dallas 415
Veristic force: Williams as Wally at Dallas Opera
© Karen Almond/Dallas Opera 2015

Toward the beginning of Everest, Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s dramatization of a disastrous 1996 climbing expedition, the team leader, Rob Hall, stands at the mountain’s summit, surveying the world before him, and sings, “It’s so beautiful.” The cascading arpeggios and widely spaced chords accompanying his words convey the exhilaration of the moment and the crystalline splendor of the vista; dissonances creeping up from the bass suggest trouble ahead. Talbot has previously written film and ballet scores, but Everest is his first opera; from the evidence of its January 30 world premiere, at Dallas Opera’s Winspear Opera House, the British composer fully possesses the essential ability to make the dramatic moment tangible. 

Talbot uses a shimmering orchestral fabric to move his musical argument forward, evoking in his method John Adams; like Adams, too, he has turned to recent history (the Everest expedition chronicled by Jon Krakauer in his bestseller Into Thin Air) for his subject matter. But to these ears, he outshines the older composer in writing for the voice: where the vocal lines in Adams’s works can seem to fit themselves arbitrarily into the propulsive orchestral continuity, Everest’s key moments gain power through the expressiveness of what is being sung.The work reaches its emotional peak with a long-distance phone-call duet between Hall and his pregnant wife, Jan Arnold; although they leave it unstated, both know that Hall will die. At its climax, the orchestra all but drops out, leaving the couple to express their most intimate feelings in a devastatingly poignant moment to an accompaniment as spare as in Zauberflöte’s Pamina–Papageno duet.

Scheer’s libretto skillfully lays out the central catastrophe while addressing the question the catastrophe inevitably raises: why would anyone undertake such a risky venture? In providing answers, the text occasionally veers into over-explicitness (“Darkness has followed me/ My whole adult life”). But Everest grounds its story in real human feeling. By eliciting sympathy for its four central figures (Hall, his wife, Jan, and two of the climbers, Doug Hanson and Beck Weathers), it also creates real suspense: we care enough about these people to wish for their survival, even as we see fate moving inexorably against them. Through it all, a spectral chorus offers commentary; by the opera’s end, we realize that these are the ghosts of climbers who have died on Everest. 

It is hard to imagine a better production for Everest than the one mounted by Dallas Opera. Robert Brill’s set — a jumble of glacial cubes, stacked to the top of the proscenium — created a stage spectacle that suggested the majesty of Everest itself. It also served as a jungle-gym-like playing space. Director Leonard Foglia set his performers scrambling through its crevices; the staging was kinetic but never busy or overelaborate; instead it focused our attention on just how formidable a task the climbers faced. 

The opera was strongly cast with singers who, true to the assignment, brought out the humanity of the characters. Even though Doug is the climber most culpable in the disaster, baritone Craig Verm made him into a deeply sympathetic character. Bass Kevin Burdette suggested the complexity of the depressive pathologist Beck, even if his Texas drawl was laid on just a bit too thick. Sasha Cooke brought a mezzo-soprano of warmth and richness to Jan; her intensely womanly sound was like an aural correlative of the character’s heavily pregnant figure. Best of all was Andrew Bidlack, in his appealing stage presence every bit the sympathetic leader, with a pellucid tenor that seemed to emanate from the Himalayan air itself. Conductor Nicole Paiement, a specialist in new music, elicited kaleidoscopic color from the orchestra and presented the music so tautly that it seemed to emerge in a single breath.

Even though Everest is a short work — one seventy-minute act — I can imagine it would make for a satisfying evening in the theater as a stand-alone presentation. Certainly it gained nothing from the chunk of Catalani’s La Wally — Act IV of the opera, with “Ebben, ne andrò lontana” interpolated into it — that Dallas Opera offered as a curtain-raiser. The rationale behind the pairing was hard to fathom: both works involve mountaintop deaths, but the presentation revealed no further thematic or stylistic affinity. The company all but admitted the disjuncture by assigning Wally to a separate director, Candace Evans. 

Brill’s set — a collection of inclined planks in front of a drop cloth — was dowdy and plain; clearly Everest had enlisted the better part of his attention, not to mention his budget. For some reason, costume designer David C. Woolard sent Wally to her mountain retreat in an elaborate gown and cloak; it was as if Tosca had headed straight from the Palazzo Farnese to the Alps. Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, in the title role, provided the one note of distinction, singing with veristic force and (except at the very top) plush tone. But Rodrigo Garciarroyo, a late substitute for Carl Tanner as the hero, Hagenbach, produced a woefully constricted sound and offered what almost seemed like a deliberate parody of provincial tenor style. Catalani was a skillful, even virtuoso orchestrator, but you would never have known it from the sluggish reading of Anthony Barrese; nor could anyone have predicted from the murky sounds emerging from the pit that the players later in the evening would sound so brilliant in Everest. spacer 

FRED COHN

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