Hardy Opera Buffs Cheer Climbers In Harrowing ‘Everest’

The 2015 opera ‘Everest’ made its Calgary premiere with a largely Canadian cast including bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, jacketed in red, as a climber left for dead but who ultimately survived. (Production photos by Trudie Lee)

CALGARY – About 1,700 Calgarians braved a temperature of minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit on Feb. 2 for the Canadian premiere of Joby Talbot’s  75-minute opera Everest, produced at Calgary Opera. The work tells of  the ill-fated 1996 Mount Everest expedition memorialized in journalist and mountaineer Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air and several film versions of the tragic events that killed eight climbers.

Tenor Andrew Bidlack reprised the role of mountain guide Rob Hall.

This remount of the Dallas Opera commission, premiered in January 2015, included the original set designed by Robert Brill, the same director, Leonard Foglia, and American tenor Andrew Bidlack, who sang the role of mountain guide Rob Hall in the original Dallas production and in its other full production at Lyric Opera of Kansas City. The rest of the cast, except for American mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen, playing Hall’s anxious wife, were Canadians, including a couple of emerging artists from Calgary Opera’s development program.

Everest found its way into this Calgary Opera season because former Dallas Opera CEO Keith Cerny, who commissioned the opera, came to lead the Canadian company in January 2018. He abruptly departed after less than a year in the job to lead the Fort Worth Symphony. His Calgary tenure left too little time to establish a legacy, but enough to introduce a Canadian audience to a remarkable work of operatic art. Cerny attended the Calgary opening but was not introduced at the post-performance reception.

Everest is a visually amazing project. Brill’s vertical, asymmetric arrangement of large white cubes evocatively represented the steep, jagged mountain, full of crannies where the principals and a compelling chorus of fatally unsuccessful climbers perched. They sang a story of largely foolhardy ambition and heart-wrenching human loss in a hostile world of vicious wind and hard, unforgiving rock. Five actual mountaineers were enlisted as supers, one of whom had actually summited Everest.

The production, designed by Robert Brill, affords surfaces for projections by Elaine J. McCarthy that reflect mountain ice, limestone, the stricken climbers’ hallucinations, and the passage of time.

The spaces between the cubes served as stations for the drama, and the blocks themselves provided surfaces for an assortment of Elaine J. McCarthy’s splendid projections. The cube faces became the textured limestone, a digital clock warning of an overshot critical deadline for a safe descent – something made much of in the other treatments of this Everest debacle – or hallucinations in a stricken climber’s mind. The fluidity and variety of effects produced a striking backdrop to the musical elements of the piece.

‘Everest’ composer Joby Talbot

Talbot’s score was atmospheric when the center of the plot was the brutally oppressive natural world itself; tense-sounding piccolos screeched ever-present and growing threats; a rumbling thunder sheet bluntly punched the air; aggressive gusts of brass and threatening percussion, with other orchestral displays of sheer power, conjured the climbers’ precarious situation.

And where the emotional core of the story came to the fore – the pathos-laden conversation between Hall, lying doomed, high on a snowy ledge, and his wife Jan, at home, pregnant with their first child, willing him to survive – Talbot’s vocal lines and orchestration avoided emotionally manipulative sentimentality. The music had an austere lyricism that underscored the couple’s love and fundamental belief in each other without breaking into overwrought musical cliché. Their final words, sung plainly, were all the more poignant for their focus on what would be left of the couple’s future: a baby girl Rob named Sarah before he died.

The score, like many these days, is full of discursive interaction rather than traditional arias. Commendable in Talbot’s approach was his resisting intervallic angularity for its own sake. Recitative was challenging but not self-consciously off-kilter. The Calgary Philharmonic, led by David Briskin, was an excellent partner in this project in its role as both sonic titans and the singers’ collaborators.

‘Everest’ librettist Gene Scheer

Librettist Gene Scheer, who was also the librettist for Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (premiered in 2010 by Dallas Opera and remounted by Calgary Opera, as a co-producer, in 2012), found a poetic simplicity for his text. Some of the story line is in the characters’ minds, in flashbacks and moments of mental disorientation; Sheer wed the material reality of the crisis to these more amorphous, philosophical strands, with a fine mixture of mundane detail and elevated reflection.

The chorus opens the opera with a blend of these two realities: “Is this how it begins? A wisp of cloud in the crisp blue sky? It is something no one ever sees: Dreams and contingencies/Spun into elegies. One more step…That is all there is… It feels pure and beautiful…beyond answers…Beyond questions…Beyond…Is this how it begins?”

Calgary Opera Chorus members, as doomed climbers from the past, eerily emerge and retreat from view.

A handful of Calgary Opera Chorus members, emerging and retreating from view, were dressed in white parkas, their faces whitened to capture the projections that fell on them. Interspersed among the cubes in the dark spaces, they represented fallen climbers commenting on the struggles of the doomed adventurers, memories they brought to Everest, and the metaphysical implications of such intrepid human choices. Foglia’s chorus blocking was eerie and theatrically powerful with the help of the imaginative set.

Ill-fated couple – tenor Andrew Bidlack, soprano Sarah Larsen.

Bidlack and Larsen were the leads. Bidlack, dressed in climbers’ garb as the dutiful mountain guide who succumbs to the sudden storm that trapped so many, has a bright tenor sound. Singing from the top of the set into the void and down to his distant, waiting wife at stage level, Bidlack conveyed the emotional range of both dutiful leader coaxing his exhausted, expiring client Doug down the mountain and wistful husband bidding his wife goodbye. Larsen portrayed the desperate wife with a subtle mix of reassuring calm and tragic hopelessness.

Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch sang the part of Beck Weathers, a Texas pathologist who somehow survived the ordeal, albeit with severe frostbite leading to multiple amputations. He was left for dead but was rescued by a Russian climber who is not included in this adaptation.

Okulitch’s “Soliloquy” catches the freezing climber as his mind slips.

Okulitch’s performance of his “Soliloquy,” as Sheer calls it, was moving. Weathers had been blinded by the thin mountain atmosphere. He was desperately cold and moving back and forth between lucidity and confusion. He sang of his doctor’s life as someone who lived in a world of specimen slides, an artificial world, he concluded, compared to the harsh reality he faced on the mountain. McCarthy created some intriguing colorful images for this critical scene.

The other singer worth noting was 13-year-old Avary Nielsen. She played Beck’s daughter, Meg, who wanders around in her father’s mind as he inches his way back to safety. She sang the role with poise and was wisely miked to ensure she could be heard at the back of the 2,100-seat Jubilee Auditorium.

The Calgary audience gave the cast a warm reception at the end of this distilled version of a story that has uniquely operatic dimensions. Cerny may have left a perfunctory impression on the Calgary opera community, but the folks who saw Everest will certainly add the experience to Calgary Opera’s reputation as a place unafraid to bring new, challenging work to the stage.

Calgary Opera is now run by artistic director Bramwell Tovey, who has written a work for the company, and CEO Heather Kitchen. Tovey was Vancouver Symphony music director for 18 years and has been a regular guest with both the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Kitchen was managing director of Dallas Theater Center for several years and more recently was affiliated with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, a regular collaborator with Calgary Opera.

Everest continues at Calgary Opera through Feb. 8. For tickets and information, go here.

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.