Chicago Opera Theater scales the heights with “Everest,” “Aleko” double bill

November 19, 2019
Andrew Bidlack stars as Rob Hall in Joby Talbot’s Everest at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Chicago Opera Theater may be entering a golden age in its history—a Russian golden age.

The city’s No. 2 opera company is coming off its finest season in a decade, with new music director Lidiya Yankovskaya leading successful performances of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, the latter in its belated Chicago debut.

Saturday night the juggernaut continued, as COT opened its 2019-20 season at the Harris Theater with an audacious double bill of Chicago premieres: Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Joby Talbot’s Everest.

This pairing of one-act operas is being presented in unique fashion. The large orchestra is on stage, set about halfway back from the covered pit, with the 140-member Apollo Chorus at the rear on risers. Both operas are fully staged, yet the effect was that of an enhanced concert version plus; with Yankovskaya visibly directing the orchestra, one got a striking stage picture of the multiple components at work.

That setup especially suited the opening work, Joby Talbot’s Everest, which was premiered at Dallas Opera in 2015.

There are a myriad of reasons why an operatic adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air should not work. And yet it does. Composer Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer have crafted a compelling 70-minute opera adapted from Krakauer’s nonfiction account of the disastrous 1996 Everest season in which eight people died.

Scheer wisely narrows the scope to three mountaineers, alternating their increasingly desperate situation on the South Summit with communications with their concerned loved ones and colleagues at the base camp. The large vocal ensemble in back acts as a kind of Greek (or Tibetan) chorus: questioning the men, commenting on the action, offering philosophical observations, and ultimately singing of the fate of the many who died on Everest attempting to reach the summit.

The staging is spare but mostly effective with two raised platforms high over the stage, serving as plateaus on the climb to the top of Everest; the base camp men and overseas family members are below, singing from the covered pit. Unfortunately, much of the crucial action was on the highest plateau on the far left side of the stage where the singers were distant and, at times, completely obscured for those of us sitting on the right.

Talbot’s music is magnificent. Written for large orchestra and chorus, the score was wholly compelling, from the atmospheric wind noise and hushed violin oscillations that begin the opera to the gale storm blast at the coda. The English composer’s style is unapologetically grand and tonal, often surging to big cinematic tuttis and back again, with lyrical moments alternating with sweeping strings, stark brass chords, ominous bass drum rolls, and the prominent wind machine, which regularly reflects the atmosphere and the climb’s deadly dangers.

As reflected in the stage setup, Everest hovers at time between opera and staged oratorio with the prominent part given to the chorus. Talbot shows impressive craft and facility in blending and varying the solo voices, chorus and orchestra, keeping all in a skillful equilibrium without allowing any single element to dominate. 

Saturday’s premiere also benefited from an excellent cast, including two principal singers from last spring’s Moby-Dick.

Andrew Bidlack (Greenhorn in Moby) was first among equals as Rob Hall, the New Zealand mountaineer and expedition leader. Bidlack’s tenor was slightly stretched at times by the role’s stratospheric tessitura—whose wouldn’t be?—but he brought superb vocalism and an earnest persona to the role.

As Rob’s pregnant wife Jan, Zoie Reams made a sensational company debut. The Chicago native possesses a gleaming mezzo-soprano, full and luxuriant from top to bottom. Reams  also showed herself an affecting actress, bringing dramatic strength and sensitivity to her conversations with Rob. Remember the name, for Zoie Reams has genuine star potential

In the smaller of his two roles Saturday night, Aleksey Bogdanov brought his powerful voice and fine acting to the climber-pathologist Beck Weathers, his baritone sounding even more vast than in his imposing Starbuck in Moby-Dick.

Zachary Nelson was solid as the ill-fated Doug Hansen. Ryan Stoll (Guy Cotter) and John Mathieu (Mike Groom) rounded out the expedition team capably. Though her character’s jump-rope nursery rhymes were annoying, Anna Laurenzo was almost believable as Meg, Beck’s young daughter.

Stage director Dylan Evans handled the far-flung action smoothly. The only miscalculation—as was the case with COT’s The Scarlet Ibis—was the conceit of having a symbolic dancer centerstage in the opera’s opening minutes. While Jose Soares’ dancing was fine, he proved a needless distraction—stretching, writhing and leaping about, finally, bafflingly, clothing himself in a suit of tinfoil, suggesting not the icy perils of Everest but the ghost of Monte Rock III. Talbot’s score stands very well on its own, and the unnecessary dancing only added an irrelevant distraction in the opera’s crucial opening minutes.

Lidiya Yankovskaya continues to impress with every performance. Even working behind the singers and stage action, she balanced the large orchestra, cast, chorus and wind effects with great clarity and dramatic point, keeping this complex and challenging score on track with incisive direction and firm momentum.

The Apollo Chorus delivered all the power, mystery and atmosphere of Talbot’s choral passages, directed by Stephen Alltop.

Aleksey Bogdanov, Michelle Johnson and Andrew Bidlack in Rachmaninoff’s Aleko at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Michael Brosilow

The second half of the evening turned to a more traditional kind of operatic obsession.

Adapted from Pushkin’s The Gypsies, Rachmaninoff’s Aleko is a sort-of Pagliacci of the Romani, a love triangle where a cuckolded husband’s intense jealousy drives him to murder his adulterous gypsy wife and her young lover.

Written in two weeks at age 19 for his conservatory graduation, Aleko was the first of Rachmaninoff’s three one-act operas. The 55-minute work may be a bit stilted dramatically, but Aleko shows remarkable assurance, fluently blending solo arias, choruses and dances in a score brimming with melody in the composer’s nascent style. Rachmaninoff abandoned opera for good after 1906, but hearing Aleko one can’t help thinking that it’s unfortunate he never returned to a genre in which he displayed such natural facility from his youngest days.

COT’s Aleko was done in modern dress with some artful redressing of the stage–the immovable mountain platforms and ladders of Everest swathed in colorful sheets of fabric, evoking something of a gypsy camp milieu.

Aleksey Bogdanov was well-suited to the put-upon title role, a bitter man who abandoned a respectable life to marry his gypsy wife only to have her ridicule and reject him for a younger man. Aleko’s jealousy drives him over the edge to murder, but Bogdanov’s huge voice and understated acting made him a wholly sympathetic figure. His magnificent rendition of Aleko’s Cavatina gave us the real Russian-opera thing— big, dark refulgent tone and great depth of feeling, showing the character’s emotional desperation as well as his great sadness, recalling how his now-aloof wife was once loving and affectionate.

As Zemfira, Aleko’s adulterous wife who torments him about her infidelities, Michelle Johnson sang with an ample soprano, albeit turning a bit squally on top notes. She proved dramatically serviceable in a rather unlikeable role.

Andrew Bidlack made a nice hairpin turn from heroic mountaineer to doomed lover as the Young Gypsy. As Zemfira’s nameless inamorata, the versatile tenor sang with rich, febrile Russian tone, sounding so different in timbre from the first half, one had to check the program to confirm this was the same singer who played Rob Hall in Everest.

With his opening solo as the Old Gypsy (Zemfira’s father), Gustav Andreassen immediately placed the action in Old Russia, with his cavernous, echt-Slavic bass. Mezzo Ola Rafalo’s deep, contralto-like tone gave weighty import to the climactic statement of the Old Gypsy Woman. 

Seven dancers from A&A Ballet provided graceful and spirited Terpsichorean interludes under choreographer Alexei Kremnev. Director Evans cleverly brought the ensemble into the action as gypsy camp members, making the dancers a cohesive part of the unfolding narrative rather than a jarring interruption of the opera’s storyline.

Yankovskaya drew a surprisingly Russian sonority from the orchestra, with expansive sable-dark string playing. The whirling dance sequences were lively and colorful, the dramatic moments intense and compelling. Likewise, the Apollo Chorus’s corporate vocalism as gypsy camp habitués was robust with Russian that sounded entirely idiomatic. 

As shown in this weekend’s Aleko and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta last season, COT’s young Russian-American music director is an inspirational advocate for operas from the land of her birth. In addition to COT’s emphasis on contemporary works, one looks forward to more Russian explorations in future seasons. Perhaps COT can complete the Rachmaninoff cycle with a double bill of The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini, or excavate Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon with Aleksey Bogdanov in the title role? The possibilities are tantalizing.

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