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Jennifer Higdon’s ‘Cold Mountain’ Has World Premiere at Santa Fe Opera

August 4, 2015

Isabel Leonard (Ada) and Nathan Gunn (Inman) in Cold Mountain (Photo by Ken Howard)With veterans exhibiting post-traumatic stress disorder, public gun violence rampant, and the display of the Confederate flag newly debated, issues that trace their history back to the Civil War are on the front page again. The Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere last Saturday, August 1, of the Civil War-themed opera, Cold Mountain, by composer Jennifer Higdon and librettist Gene Scheer, could not be more timely.

With its dynamic stage production, dazzling score and libretto, dream cast, and splendidly conducted orchestra, Santa Fe Opera has its second successful launch of a new work in a row. Co-commissioned and co-produced with Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera, and in collaboration with North Carolina Opera, the opera’s first production here marks a milestone in scale and ambition for the company.

Initially a National Book Award–winning and immensely popular 1997 novel by Charles Frazier, based on his own ancestral history, Cold Mountain’s first theatrical treatment, the 2003 Hollywood film directed by Anthony Minghella suffered from lack of focus. That cautionary tale was not lost on its current adaptors who winnowed the incident-packed story down to personal interactions and spiritual growth over epic battles. Scheer crafted a haiku-like libretto, a miracle of economy.

The opera’s narrative follows wounded soldier W.P. Inman on an odyssey home through the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, having deserted the Confederate Army to reunite with Ada Monroe, the preacher’s daughter he met briefly before the war. Raised in Charleston, Ada had come to rural Cold Mountain to assist her ailing father, but his death and her lack of practical skills have left her life precarious and lonely. Teague, the head of the Home Guard that enforces military conscription, has designs on her. Ada is soon joined by Ruby, unrefined but with well-hewn survival skills on the farm, gained from necessity. As Inman and Ada converge toward war’s end, they confront a world transformed.

An underlying theme of the opera’s storyline is the fortitude of the women contrasted with the failings of the men (with the exception of Inman), an element that became a leitmotif traced through many details of the story: a philandering preacher who impregnates a young woman, a wandering fiddler who abandons his parental responsibilities, a trigger-happy and predatory soldier who threatens a young mother and her child. The list is long and damning, and its contemporary relevance and regional applicability was certainly part of the story’s original and adapted versions.

Director Leonard Foglia, unified the episodic action by overlapping locations and timeframes to flow seamlessly through the work’s two acts — each of which weaved together, without break, no less than 10 scenes. They were labeled for the audience in Elaine J. McCarthy’s artful projections and enhanced by David C. Woolard’s costumes, Brian Nason’s subtle mood lighting, and designer Robert Brill’s unit set, within which a warren’s nest of nooks and crannies accommodated all the scenes.

Ensemble cast in Cold Mountain (Photo by Ken Howard)Jennifer Higdon’s challenge in this, her first opera, was to maintain the tempo of Scheer’s dramatic treatment. For all its economy within each scene, the libretto has something like three-dozen distinct encounters to set. Higdon’s score leans heavily on plot-advancing dialogue sung in her own kind of musical parlando. Intrinsically it is Higdon’s least interesting music, but it renders comprehensible the lyrical, Southern-inflected language, assisted by a cast that made enunciation a priority.

The score’s finest musical moments were, appropriately, in the few character-defining arias, ravishing choruses, time-stopping musical interludes, and reflective epilogue. Higdon’s music serves the text with power and grace, yet without ego.

Characters were defined by colors and motifs in the orchestra. Inman has horns and trombones in “empty” chords (missing the third), suggesting his numb hollowness. Long-suffering Ada calls forth the cooing of close-harmony woodwinds, later more assertive as her character strengthens with adversity. Ruby gets rapid-scampering riffs in the percussion section. Teague has leering bass lines.

Higdon’s is tonal music,  with appropriate, occasional incorporations of Appalachian folk tunes. But it is a thoroughly modern score: Though often elegiac, the music is punctuated with violence and dissonance is almost an orchestral character itself, paralleling the opera’s unsettled, anxious mood. It is a score, which, in its sure-handed clarity, accessibility, and inventiveness, marks Higdon as a natural creator for the lyric stage.

The huge cast of 26 was led by Nathan Gunn’s manly yet wily Inman, the soul of perseverance and integrity. Isabel Leonard traced Ada’s journey from belle to brave with her soaring, radiant voice. She is a singer who has grown from coloratura to lyric-with-punch, and the Santa Fe Opera has been a crucial factor in that journey. Emily Fons’ Ruby touchingly conveyed the complex love-hate relationship she has with her father. With his Texas-bred accent and heldentenor vocals, Jay Hunter Morris personified the Javert-like bully, Teague.

Emily Fons (Ruby Thewes) in Cold Mountain. (Photo by Ken Howard)Honorable mentions go to the additional principals: Roger Honeywell as grifting preacher Veasey; Kevin Burdette as Ruby’s wandering father, Stobrod, and the blind man in the first act; Anthony Michaels-Moore as Ada’s dead father, Monroe, and also Pangle, the simple-minded musician companion of Stobrod; Deborah Nansteel, as Lucinda, the black woman who warily (and symbolically) frees Inman from his chains; and Robert Pomakov in the roles of Bill Owens and Ethan.

Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya set unerringly appropriate pacing for his orchestra, enforced clarity and precision in its delivery, and kept his singers properly cued, assuring they could be heard over the instruments. His orchestra sparkled in the first act’s ample opportunities for humor and lamented with power and tragic virtuosity as the tragedy set in. Susanne Sheston’s chorus provided the rich vocals of public celebration and mourning.

Performances continue on August 5, 14, 17, 22, with an additional one announced for the sold-out run on August 24.

Rodney Punt writes music criticism for SFCV, Classical Voice North America, Huffington Post, and LA Opus, the latter of which he also publishes. He is a career arts management professional.

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