Never a company to shy away from new music, the Dallas Opera on Saturday finished its world-première run of Everest, which it commissioned from composer Joby Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer. The opera, Mr Talbot’s first effort in the genre, is a dramatic retelling in one act of an ill-fated 1996 climbing expedition. Everest focuses on the characters’ struggles to overcome elements within as well as without, and made for a satisfying second half to Saturday’s program. The evening began with another work, the final act of Alfredo Catalani’s largely forgotten 1892 opera La Wally. The 40-minute duration of the latter could have been distilled into a couple of thrilling vocal runs and high notes, and in any case Everest would have been worth the audience’s while on its own.

On paper, pairing this audacious première with the finale from La Wally looked like a hit. Both are set in the mountains and rely on that setting’s inherent danger for their plots, and the idea of prefacing a new work with a small helping of heavy late Romanticism seemed a nice contrast. The final impression, though, was of one opera that displays real vision and another that has perhaps understandably faded from view.

As we join our heroine Wally at the beginning of Act IV, she has fled into the Alps, leaving worldly concerns behind. Giuseppe, whom she has desired but who is now engaged to another woman, eventually catches up with her and confesses his love. Their two hearts are quite abruptly – and briefly – united before Giuseppe is swept away by an avalanche and Wally throws herself off a cliff in despair.

Melissa Citro, singing the title role for only this fourth and final performance of the run, was a bright spot in an otherwise dull opener to this double-bill. The volatility and power throughout her range were a treat to hear, and her sense of late-Romantic Italian operatic style helped carve out some character depth in short order, without the preceding three acts to set things up. The remaining vocal and orchestral performances were a bit disappointing, and in the end, even this lone act of La Wally collapsed like an unstable mass of snow under its own weight.

From its evocative orchestral prelude, Everest already showed more promise. The curtain rose to reveal Robert Brill’s stunning yet minimal set, a jumble of white cubes some four feet on each side, stacked at irregular angles and rising roughly 20 feet from the level of the stage. Throughout the opera, the chorus (dressed in all-white and representing the spirits of those who had lost their lives over the centuries on the mountain) perched themselves on various cubes, and the main characters climbed over them, with the spotlight shifting back and forth as the action moved between various plotlines. The cubes also served as a backdrop for projections, designed by Elaine J. McCarthy, suggesting new settings or props: a few bottles of beer, blades of grass, and burning charcoals stood in for a character’s daydream of a Texas barbecue; and the numerals of a ticking digital clock reminded the audience periodically of the climbers’ race against time, and of the larger theme of human mortality.

Mr Scheer’s libretto lent itself to mellifluous solo lines and syllabic, chant-like incantations from the chorus. The text was full of clever touches: toward the end the chorus narrates a zoom-out effect, singing “two souls, a cliff, a peak, a mountain, a range, a country, a continent”, in an apparent paraphrase from Joyce (“Stephen Dedalus/Class of Elements/…Europe/The World/The Universe”); and the figurative stopping of time during an aria here becomes literal, as the chorus reminds us that the time on the summit is still 3:56 after one character’s semi-hallucinatory soliloquy.

Vocally, the performances in Everest were phenomenal across the board, the lead roles of Rob Hall (tenor Andrew Bidlack), Beck Weathers (bass Kevin Burdette), Doug Hansen (baritone Craig Verm) and Jan Arnold (mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke) strongly differentiated and superbly sung. Conductor Nicole Paiement held things together superbly, eliciting a sweeping and dynamic performance from the orchestra. Mr Talbot’s score relied heavily on orchestral special effects (wind, storms, a beating heart) that were indeed evocative but sometimes at the expense of deeper dramatic meaning. Repetition of motives effectively mimicked the echo of a mountain chasm, and wheezing downward glissandi corresponded with fading strength and shortness of breath, but such devices ultimately didn’t develop very much. Then again, difficulty in forward progress may have been metaphorically significant, and greater familiarity with the work would no doubt aid in understanding. In any case, it was an impressive first foray into opera for Mr Talbot, and yet more adventurous programming (no pun intended) from the Dallas Opera.