The Dallas Opera scored a minor coup and a mighty one in the Winspear Opera House on Friday night.
The minor coup was the company’s production of part of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally — an opera far better known by reputation than in actual performance.
The mighty one was Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest, which was receiving its world premiere.
Fortunately, La Wally came first in this striking double bill. This gave it a chance to make its point before being overwhelmed by the powerful drama that followed.
La Wally is in four acts. To fit it into the double bill, the Dallas Opera is cutting it back to one act, the climactic final one. This poses a problem: The opera’s most famous number, Ebben, ne andrò lontana, comes in Act I. Rather than lose it, the company has moved the aria to the beginning of Act 4 and fit it rather neatly if not ideally into the plot.
The Dallas Opera’s version reduces the cast to three singers. Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams is taking the title role, with tenor Rodrigo Garciarroyo as her beloved and soprano Jennifer Chung as a young friend. All three, especially the sweet-voiced Williams, filled their roles ably Friday night and the Dallas Opera orchestra, with Anthony Barrese at the helm, produced highly atmospheric sounds.
Robert Brill’s scenic design uses drapes with lighting by Christopher Akerlind and projections by Elaine J. McCarthy to create a sense of a mountain environment. The final avalanche is OK, though not as ominous in its effect as the set in the following Everest.
Catalani’s music is actually quite pleasant. He can’t equal the peak moments of his contemporary Puccini, but both his vocal writing and especially his orchestral writing are appealing.
The opening of Everest is mystifying (I am assuming that what we saw Friday night was part of the show and not some sort of technical snafu). The stage looks like a giant TV screen, with swirling images as if a late-night station has gone off the air. Maybe this represents the primeval chaos just before the moment of creation.
At any rate, things soon come into focus, and thereafter everything is to the point and highly effective in creating an oppressive atmosphere of approaching disaster.
Everest is based on real life — a disastrous 1990s expedition that aimed for the top of Mount Everest.
Robert Brill’s set is a series of large cubes that look like giant blocks of ice virtually filling the stage opening and stretching from floor to ceiling. The cast climbs over, through and around the cubes, giving an uncanny sense of struggling on a mountainside.
It’s hard to describe Talbot’s music. There are actual musical tones in some of the vocal writing, but this is a high-tech opera and much of what you hear could be described as sound effects impossible before the days of electronics.
This isn’t meant as a criticism. There’s no question that the overall effect of music, Scheer’s words, Leonard Foglia’s stage direction and the work of the design team of Brill, Akerlind, McCarthy, David C. Woolard (costumes) and David Zimmerman (wigs and makeup) makes a cohesive whole that produces a very powerful drama.
Credit should certainly go to the awesome work of conductor Nicole Paiement and the superb cast of Andrew Bidlack, Kevin Burdette, Julia Rose Arduino, Craig Verm, Sasha Cooke, Mark McCrory and John Boehr.
This is one opera performance that rivals great legitimate theater in its impact.