It was a great weekend for contemporary opera in Chicago. Lyric’s not-to-be-missed Dead Man Walking (here’s our review) continued at the Civic Opera House while across the Loop at the Harris Theater, Chicago Opera Theater presented a two-performance, one-weekend run of the 2014 one-act Everest, with an astounding score by Joby Talbot and a libretto by Gene Scheer that turns the tragic 1996 adventure that was the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air into an emotionally taut opera. (Scheer writes in a program note that he conducted 40 hours of interviews with survivors himself.)
COT brought back the stars of last season’s excellent Moby-Dick for two key roles in Everest: tenor Andrew Bidlack as expedition leader Rob Hall, and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as Beck Weathers—a physician on an obsessive quest. Once again, both delivered powerful vocal and dramatic performances. And they were matched by the work of mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams as Hall’s wife, back at home awaiting the birth of their child (their death’s-door duet was one peak of a consistently elevated performance by the entire ensemble), and baritone Zachary Nelson as another adventurer with an obsessive need to climb to “the top of the world.”
We’re used to minimal but effective sets from COT, and this was no exception. With nothing more than fabric, ladders, tiny platforms, and superb use of projections (by designer Greg Mitchell), the Harris stage—also occupied by a full orchestra, an expanded Apollo Chorus, and, intermittently, by dancers—was transformed into the hostile Mount Everest environment as a killer snowstorm came in. It was a transformation riding not only on those projections, but on Talbot’s inventive orchestral score, conducted by COT music director Lidiya Yankovskaya and including judicious use of electronic elements. We heard the wind whistle and moan, the ice tingle and crack, as life was distilled to its most basic, bone-chilling struggle: “How many breaths will you take before you die?”
The 70-minute Everest was paired with a second short opera, Aleko—a 19th-century Gypsy romance (from a Pushkin poem) by a young Sergei Rachmaninov, interesting mainly for what it suggested about the music to come from him. No fault of any of the performers, but this was an anticlimax. The impact of Everest would have been best left to stand alone.
Meanwhile, Lyric Opera has revived its 2014 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, directed by Robert Falls and set in the 1920s, with an able new cast, including soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen making a welcome Lyric debut as the victim of an attempted rape by Giovanni that sets the opera in motion. On opening night last Thursday, it looked like Falls has dialed back on some of the coke snorting and carnal groping he introduced five years ago, but the lighting effects in this production (including one unearned moment of house-light drama at the end) seemed more heavy-handed than ever. The subject matter couldn’t be more timely, but, in the absence of a radically updated libretto, the music remains the main reason to see this 18th-century gothic tale about the Harvey Weinstein of his era. v