IN REVIEW: Lyric stages tuneful, visually striking new opera (and the weather outside is indeed frightful)
Everest possesses something found in surprisingly few contemporary operas: soaring, tastefully singable tunes that stick in your head but avoid the tacky pizzazz of Broadway that plagues so many new operas. Some will admire the piece (by composer Joby Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer) simply for its dazzling physical production and its starkly naturalistic score, the latter including wind machines and all manner of orchestral special effects to make you feel you are on top of the world’s highest mountain. (Nicole Paiement conducted the Kansas City Symphony in the pit.) In only its second performances since its Dallas Opera premiere, the opera—the brainchild of a team of brilliant designers led by director Leonard Foglia and featuring sets by Robert Brill and others—was received with rare enthusiasm at its Lyric Opera opening, on November 11th at the Kauffman Center.
For 75 minutes the Muriel Kauffman Theatre was transformed into an otherworldly place. Brill’s set consists of gigantic cubes that fill the stage from top to bottom, a seemingly random stack of jagged edges that nevertheless allows the singers to climb up and down and in and out of the precipitous jumble. Once the scrims have been lifted (one of a Poltergeist–like TV-snow effect, the other a map of Nepal), an array of video images appear on the cubes (projections are by Elaine McCarthy, lighting by Russell Champa), ranging from cloudy heights to hallucinations of backyard barbecues—and of course the disorienting blizzard finale that felt so vivid it had us wishing we’d brought an overcoat.
The opera is based on a real-life tragedy that occurred in May 1996, which claimed the lives of eight climbers during what would become, up to that time, the deadliest Everest season on record (and would ultimately spawn several books by survivors, complete with conflicting accounts of the events, and a bizarre film by Baltasar Kormákur). Inevitably, part of the dramatic energy grows from our questioning of the morality of leaving one’s family (and paying a guide upwards of $65,000) to risk life and limb for the sake of having scaled a mountain. Scheer underscores this conundrum at several points, by showing us out-takes of far-off family members hoping their loved ones will make it home safely.
The opera hones in on three climbers. Rob Hall (sung by Andrew Bidlack with a sweet, clear tenor) is an experienced guide who is helping a climber gratis to succeed where his first expensive attempt had failed: His conversation flashes from present to distant, as his wife Jan (Sarah Larsen, singing with a richly consistent mezzo-soprano) worries from their home in New Zealand about his survival. Doug Hansen, the climber in question (Craig Verm, whose baritone in its prime range sounded gorgeous) questions his own motives.
Beck Weathers (sung by baritone Michael Mayes with earthy grace) is a climber who “clicks out” of the line when he suddenly has problems seeing. He has left behind (at home) his young daughter, Meg (the youthful, gifted soprano Claire Emerson Rupp) and his visions of her spark him to ask himself if he’s done the right thing.
Baritone Tim Murray and bass-baritone Mark McCrory sing Guy and Mike, respectively, who try to save the climbers: From base camp, Guy urges Rob to leave Doug (who can barely breathe) and save himself, but ultimately patches Rob through to Jan for a wrenching final duet. Rob has made the semi-heroic decision not to leave Doug behind, as the two men have urged each other to make the final push to the summit despite the certainty that it is a death-sentence. (Giant clock-numerals projected onto the mountainside tick off the minutes, as the Greek chorus sings ominously that Rob and Doug have passed the deadline for a successful descent.)
The 16 visible choristers pop in from time to time, appearing through crevices in the blocks (joined by eight more offstage) to warn, cajole, foretell. Unfortunately, they were at times either drowned out by the orchestra or had difficulty hearing each other because of placement: We often barely understood what they were singing. (Thank goodness for Figaro titles.) Late in the opera we realized with a jolt that their white garb, which in contrast to the brightly clad climbers allowed them to blend into the snow, suggested they are actually the spirits of dead climbers. (Costumes are by David C. Wollard, sound by ra byn taylor.)
What makes this opera most satisfying are its musical “moments.” As in Verdi’s Falstaff they are fleeting but telling, although unlike Falstaff one has the sense that some could have been expounded upon further. “Where am I in this story?” soliloquizes Doug. “Let’s do this,” sings Rob with Doug, as they egg each other on to make the summit, in an almost macho-like challenge. “There are really 29,035 ways that I love you,” sings Jan, alluding to Everest’s height. “Our forever” is a duet in which Jan seems resigned to her husband’s fate. And the climactic quartet of Jan, Rob, Doug and Beck, who appear in various cracks in the wall of snow, is a crystalline moment of self-realization that reminds one of the famous Rigoletto Quartet in that it (a) signals everyone’s concerns at once and (b) telegraphs to us that things are about to go terribly wrong. (The jarring finale also includes a scroll of thousands of names of those who have died on Everest: An alarming number are those of Sherpa guides.)
On the strength of score and libretto one is inclined to believe Everest could take on a life of its own: It has real arias, duets, choruses and even a lovely quartet, as well as massive orchestral interludes that urge the drama forward compellingly. Time will tell whether its impact is partly reliant on the current physical production, which is visually iconic enough that it almost feels part-and-parcel with the score. Will subsequent productions succeed, with new designs? (Of course, we asked the same question of Nixon in China in 1987, and it’s still around.) Furthermore, the length makes the piece problematic to program, as it is a tad too long to present as a one-act opera on a double bill—to say nothing of the task of finding a suitable pairing—and at the same time is too short to fill a “night at the opera.”
But taken on its own merits, Everest shows us that an opera can be true to the artistic integrity of operatic history and appeal to a “lay audience,” with a story that is approachable and gripping enough that one almost forgets that it is an opera. It’s drama, pure and simple.
Everest continues through November 19th at the Kauffman Center. Call 816-471-7344 or go to kcopera.org.
Photos by Cory Weaver / Lyric Opera of Kansas City
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