“Everest”, an opera by Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer, made a strong impression when it premiered at the Dallas Opera in 2015. A tense and captivating portrayal of a truly ill-fated expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 1996, the piece focuses on three climbers — Rob Hall (the leader of the expedition), Doug Hansen and Beck Weathers — and Jan Arnold, Hall’s pregnant wife at home. He explores their connections but above all their deep isolation in the face of the unleashed blizzard that will cost Rob and Doug their lives.
Opera Parallèle, the original company of conductor Nicole Paiement, who first conducted, reassembled the piece as a digital graphic novel, which is now available on demand from the new Opera streaming channel. from Dallas (rental $ 19.99; no subscription required; available through Jan. 16, 2022). This ingenious production focuses the action even more on this isolation, as well as on the pride that drives humans to challenge the ruthless natural world and the porous border between life and death.
Directed by Brian Staufenbiel, with work from illustrator Mark Simmons and cinematographer David Murakami, the film is designed to resemble a book, with multiple shutters per page, floating against a starry black background of seemingly space infinite. Black, white and shades of blue dominate the visual palette, depicting the mountain and an empty-eyed choir of the dead – depicting the hundreds of climbers killed in decades of summit attempts – surrounding the living figures. Only living humans are drawn in warm colors. They are realistically animated, their faces made mobile using technology that mimicked the expressions of the singers when they were recording their parts in the studio. This color and this movement embody the hope of survival of the living characters but also their fragility, from the chilly and blocky backgrounds; the stiff and threatening chorus; and the constant, inexorable pace of the rest of the animation all point to a bad outcome.
This visual environment and tempo complemented the music, which balances the hopeful solo vocals against the storm raging in the orchestra and the weird, echoing the consistency of the choir counting the time – “2: 59. 3:12. 3:21 “-with every minute making a safe descent less likely. The vocal characterizations are distinctive: Nathan Granner’s poignant tenor expresses Rob’s adventurous spirit, his sense of responsibility to his clients – rather than leaving a sick Doug behind, he drags him along and eventually dies by his side – and his love for Jan. Baritone Hadleigh Adams skillfully conveys Doug’s fundamental weakness; Mezzo Sasha Cooke makes Jan, connected to Rob as he dies on the mountain, a heartbreaking and loyal companion. Bass Kevin Burdette embodies Beck’s life force as he hallucinates a backyard barbecue and his daughter, Meg (Charlotte Fanvu); his appearance removes him from death and prompts him to save himself.
The choir part was performed by a quartet of singers, their voices skillfully extended into a larger ensemble through multitrack recording. The large orchestra requested in the score was represented by a digital soundtrack created by engineer Magnus Green in collaboration with Ms. Paiement, who also conducted the singers. It was efficient and provided the necessary momentum and background, but the richness and variety of the acoustic instrumental sound was lacking, flattened into a more generalized electronic timbre effect. Drawing and animation successfully brought the story of “Everest” to a new angle; however, compressing his orchestral music into one dimension, while appropriate for the medium and certainly profitable, was a waste.
–Ms. Waleson writes on opera for the Journal and is the author of “Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America” (Metropolitan).
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