Mount Everest has claimed many lives. Joby Talbot and Gene Sheer’s opera Everest charts one fateful incident in 1996, when Rob Hall led a group of climbers, and a deadly storm unfurled. Engaging the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, and placing the orchestra onstage, Chicago Opera Theater presented an impressive amalgam of human and natural forces extended also to Rachmaninov’s Aleko in their season-opening double bill. Whereas Aleko, an emotionally charged story of betrayal and murder written when the composer was just nineteen, features traditional numbers and several dances, Everest intersperses real-time narrative of the climb with probing, omniscient interjections from the choir. Time-looping extensions in the story bring family members into play, reminding us that the climbers were also parents and that their deaths would have ripple effects. Still, Everest keeps melodramatic impulses at bay and controlled psychological tension ultimately saturates the scenario. In short, this double bill was a close study of aesthetic contrasts.

Andrew Bidlack (Rob Hall)
© Michael Brosilow

Director Dylan Evans and choreographer Alexei Kremnev made some key production choices to bridge the stylistic gap. Dancer Jose Soares of A&A ballet embodied visceral human struggle as we entered the cool sound- and landscape of Everest. Then, in Aleko, dance was unleashed from its specified role to fulfill a more fluid narrative function. The relatively benign and atmospheric instrumental passages and choral numbers gained a strong gestural dimension as a result. Co-designers Olga Maslova and Greg Mitchell began, for Everest, with a skeletal angular structure with different platform heights that gained an abundance of warm, colorful textiles as the focus turned to the gypsy world of Aleko. Further connective tissue: a roughly textured projection surface above the chorus comprised of folded men’s shirts (numbering roughly the lives lost on Everest to date). Abstract and welcome cascades of pale color and electronic light in Everest yielded to evocatively swirling snatches of fabric and waves of impending darkness in Aleko.

José Soares (Dancer)
© Michael Brosilow

If a conversational lyrical contour dominates Everest, somewhat detached from gossamer orchestral textures and an evocative percussive/electronic sound world, select moments achieved a penetratingly emotional directness. Aleksey Bogdanov, for example, shared openly his ambition as Beck Weathers, while admitting in nuanced fashion his frail psychological state. Zachary Nelson’s compelling performance of Doug Hansen exuded idealism in “One more step”. As Rob Hall, Andrew Bidlack sent ringing his appeal “Can anyone hear me?” scarcely hinting at awareness of defeat. Female voices emerged in the form of Weather’s young daughter Meg, with Anna Laurenzo effectively at an emotional remove from the impending doom. More sophisticated, due to age and experience, was Zoie Reams as Hall’s partner. Reams’ phone conversation with Hall during the storm – a calculated effort to help keep him alive – was masterful in technique and dramatic effect.

Aleksey Bogdanov (Aleko)
© Michael Brosilow

With Aleko, musical director Lidiya Yankovskaya swiftly took the spotlight. A vibrant and dynamic energy connected her physical gestures with Rachmaninov’s music. She breathed through the musical forces, and the orchestra was on top form. As the old gypsy, Gustav Andreassen aptly framed the drama with his sage and culturally idiosyncratic opening tale of past tragedies. Bogdanov’s Aleko brooded in deep, steady tones, entering a less tortured state for his nostalgic cavatina supported by ravishingly light orchestral textures.

Aleksey Bogdanov (Aleko), Michelle Johnson (Zemfira) and Andrew Bidlack (Young Gypsy)
© Michael Brosilow

Michelle Johnson’s kaleidoscopic Zemfira – carefree lover one moment, defiantly alienated wife the next – had no need for such reflection and reveled in her intense variability. As her young gypsy paramour, Andrew Bidlack embodied unwavering idealism as did his portrayal of Rob Hall. His romantic outpouring to Zemfira, with harp obbligato, was pure honey. Ola Rafelo’s solid old gypsy woman closed the frame with historical grounding, yet Aleko’s ritualistic double murder of the lovers was not rooted in 19th-century Russia. He steadily lit a cigarette, while projections suggested that he set the bodies afire, bringing the arc of contrasts with Everest full circle.