Joby Talbot’s big Chicago weekend results in great music

A scene from “Everest” produced by Chicago Opera Theater. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

British composer Joby Talbot (b. 1971) was in Chicago last weekend to hear his own music performed. There was the well-advertised Chicago premiere of his first and — as of yet —only opera, “Everest,” produced by Chicago Opera Theater. And there was “Path of Miracles,” an hour-long work for small vocal ensemble, performed by the British group Tenebrae and presented in Rockefeller Chapel by University of Chicago Presents. Talbot took bows at both events before well-pleased audiences.

“Everest” is a one-act opera based on the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest when eight climbers attempting to reach the highest point on Earth died over the course of 48 hours. The opera is often described as based on the best-selling book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, a gripping account of what happened by a writer who was also one of the climbers — and is disputed by some other climbers who were also present. However, librettist Gene Scheer (who also wrote the libretto for “Dead Man Walking,” now at Lyric Opera) reports that the text is based on his own research, particularly interviews with many of those involved.

The story has cannily and effectively been reduced to four main characters, two of whom die on the mountain: Rob Hall, the leader of one of the Everest expedition’s climbing teams; Beck Weathers and Doug Hansen, two climbers who paid him to lead them to the top of Everest; and Jan Arnold, Hall’s pregnant wife who had climbed with her husband in the past.

Talbot’s music is arresting and vital. He has created a score which is atmospheric, intimate, heroic, and tragic. From shimmering violins, cold as ice, to drumbeats which pulse like a human heart, the music serves the story admirably. The details are marvelous, such as the use of descending vocal glissandi, where the singers start at one pitch and quickly slur down to another. This chilling effect evokes the danger of an avalanche, or the frigid winds descending mercilessly on the mountain climbers.

Tenor Andrew Bidlack is Rob Hall, the doomed leader of the expedition. His voice is crisp yet plaintive, and he lets the strain of the top notes show through, as if to give voice to the agony of the thin atmosphere with little oxygen. The most touching moment of the opera is when he speaks to his wife in New Zealand via a satellite phone. Although neither of them says it, they both know that he will soon die cold and alone on Everest. His wife is sung beautifully by mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams, whose drab costume included a large baby bump. Reams offered glowing singing, and she displayed the inner strength of a mother whose child would never know her father.

Aleksey Bogdanov was gripping as Beck Weathers, the American pathologist who is left for dead on Everest, but struggles against all odds and manages to cling to life. His baritone is clear and he sings at times with searing power. Baritone Doug Hansen does an admirable job as Doug Hansen, another doomed climber. Hansen, who had failed to reach the summit on a previous expedition, did so this time, but succumbed to the elements. His body has never been found.

Lidiya Yankovskaya, COT’s music director, lead the orchestra (huge by COT standards, at nearly 70 players) and chorus (the 140-member Apollo Chorus). The orchestra offered attractive sound and support for the principals and was effective at every turn in setting the scene with Talbot’s mesmerizing music. The chorus served various purposes, at times like a Greek chorus commenting on the action, at times representing inner turmoil, at times speaking for the dead of Everest.

The vocal ensemble Tenebrae performs “Path of Miracles” by Joby Talbot at Rockefeller Chapel. (Photo by Adrián Mandeville for UChicago Presents)

The only disappointment with this tremendous opera is its staging. The orchestra and chorus performed on the Harris Theater stage, and with over 200 bodies they took up most of space leaving only the very front of the stage open to action. As director Dylan Evans chose not to place the orchestra and chorus behind a scrim, we had a situation where three principals were lost in the expanse of the Himalayas, but were at all times surrounded by the vast throngs of humanity behind them. Greg Mitchell’s scenic design consisted of two platforms. One center stage for Beck and one stage right for Hall and Hansen. Stage left was used for the off-mountain characters. After reaching their platforms, singers then barely moved. In fact, most characters did almost nothing except sing.

It felt more like a cantata than opera, with the soloists wearing puffy coats and climbing wobbly ladders.

At the back of the stage, above the heads of the chorus, was a wide expanse of pieces of cloth linked together. The individual pieces looked like men’s underwear. Onto this big load of laundry abstract figures were projected, projections so pointless and distracting that you were relieved when they finally stopped.

After an intermission, the one-act “Aleko,” written by Rachmaninov when he was a student, took the stage. Like “Pagliacci,” it is the story of a jealous husband who brutally pursues his wife and her lover, with tragic consequences. Bogdanov was remarkable in the title role, raging and roiling. Michelle Johnson was luminous as his wife Zemfira, while Bidlack provided youth and vigor as the Young Gypsy. Gustav Andreassen was superb as the Old Gypsy who gets the story rolling.

The Everest platforms were covered with bright colored sheets of cloth and members of A&A Ballet provided attractive dancing, although some of the moves could have used a bit more polish. The orchestra offered pert and alert playing. Yet still, save for the dancing, the staging was static and dull.

The night before the opening of “Everest,” Talbot’s “Path of Miracles” was performed by Tenebrae, led by conductor Nigel Short. This hour-long work was given loving and virtuosic treatment by the 17 singers in the ensemble. “Path of Miracles” is about the Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago.

Talbot’s music is beguiling and Tenebrae’s performance was stunning. There was glorious purity of tone, exquisite blending of voices, and fascinating use of dynamics, with this ensemble sounding remarkable even at the quietest moments. The dark sound of the basses, who offered great depth even on the lowest notes, was stunning, while the top notes of the sopranos were heavenly and clear.

The score drew detailed pictures of suffering along the hot, dusty roads, the euphoria of pilgrims, even the sound of angels.

“Path of Miracles” is a revelatory piece, and it was given its full due.

Tenebrae’s concert opened with a companion piece to “Path,” written by Owain Park. “Footsteps” was commissioned by Tenebrae to be performed with “Path” and Park has created a pleasing composition. Tenebrae was joined by the Hyde Park Neighborhood Choir: Presto Ensemble, a part of the Chicago Children’s Choir. Together the two choral ensembles realized a fascinating 17-minute look at journeys. The music was multi-layered and replete with intriguing moments. It was a great pleasure to hear music of this quality performed in part by some of our young neighbors, who did a great job both as singers and as ambassadors for Hyde Park.