Aug. 17 Santa Fe Opera: Cold Mountain

Deborah Nansteel (left, standing) as Lucinda, and Nathan Gunn (far right) as Inman in Santa Fe Opera's premiere production of "Cold Mountain" (photo by Ken Howard)

Deborah Nansteel (left, standing) as Lucinda, and Nathan Gunn (far right) as Inman in Santa Fe Opera’s premiere production of “Cold Mountain” (photo by Ken Howard)

Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere of ‘Cold Mountain’ a treasure

Jennifer Higdon, in her first operatic effort, delivers Charles Frazier’s Civil War tale in a bright and original voice

By James Sohre
Contributing writer

Long a champion of new works, the venerable Santa Fe Opera has scored a resounding success with the world premiere of Cold Mountain.

Librettist Gene Scheer has transformed Charles Frazier’s novel into a riveting, richly detailed lyric drama that remains faithful to the author’s important plot points and themes, while composer Jennifer Higdon provides a restless score of pulsating confrontations, ever shifting musical moods, and almost unerring musical commentary and emotional support.

Higdon tethers her vocal writing to the individual characters, and her keen ear for natural conversational writing — with its perfect capture of spoken cadence and accents — is reminiscent of the best of Britten and Sondheim. Although she is not just about writing a pretty melody that gets hummed by the audience at intermission, Higdon produces moments of undeniably alluring writing in this work, such in the luminous love duet whose cascading phrases keep rising in pitch and intensity.

Cold Mountain is scored for a virtuoso orchestra, with no shortage of exposed solo instrumental efforts that either comment on the drama or support the emotional subtext of the characters. The mournful, throbbing strings at times recalls the prelude to La Traviata, while brass fanfares suggest Britten’s War Requiem. Disquieting percussive effects recall Stockhausen, with chillingly ominous foreboding in their cold, isolated statements. But the writing here is no pastiche: Jennifer Higdon clearly has her own musical voice, and one the most unique so far in the 21st century.

To say that conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya led a tour-de-force musical reading would be to risk understating his achievement, which from downbeat to cut-off was thrilling in its command of a committed and highly skilled ensemble of performers.

Special mention is due to Higdon’s profound choral writing, as well — brought to life in flawless fashion by Chorus Master Susanne Sheston. The huge chorale in Act 2 that decries war provides the musical and emotional highpoint of the piece, and is closely rivaled by the overwhelming final collage where each character is reintroduced to urge the central character to retell the stories in the hopes of avoiding a future war.

The story, set on Cold Mountain in North Carolina, tells of W.P. Inman (in love with Ada Monroe), who is conscripted to fight for the Confederacy. After being repulsed by the horrors of war’s futile destruction, Inman deserts to return to Ada — who in the interim has lost her father. Befriended by the itinerant tomboyish Ruby Thewes, Ada accepts her help in renewing the family farm.

Thewes has her own baggage: a drunken father who abandoned her only to reappear in her life, reformed, as a folk musician. As Inman seeks to reunite with Ada, he encounters any number of secondary characters who enrich his journey. He is dogged by the bounty hunter Teague, who captures and returns deserters for money.

Scheer’s libretto effectively interweaves the developing love story between Ada and Inman, shown in flashbacks, into the fabric of the war story. Leonard Foglia‘s creative team has succeeded in building a believable and empathetic romantic relationship that engages the audience.

Robert Brill's set in Santa Fe Opera's "Cold Mountain," with Kevin Burdette (left) as Stobrod Thewes and Isabel Leonard as Ada (photo: Ken Howard)

Robert Brill’s set in Santa Fe Opera’s “Cold Mountain,” with Kevin Burdette (left) as Stobrod Thewes and Isabel Leonard as Ada (photo: Ken Howard)

The effective set by Robert Brill comprises an abstract art installation that closely resembles a giant pile of black pick-up sticks. This magnificent structure can suggest mountain slopes, gulches, trees, destroyed buildings, porches, churches and battlefields An elevated, narrow center platform is tracked to move about as a boat, high ramp, or funeral bier. Performers clamber over, on and under it as needed for any given locale.

Brian Nason’s fluid lighting, with its unerring use of color filters, is a towering achievement. In the midst of a story largely beset with cool exteriors, Nason proved especially adept at creating a feeling of warm interiors. Projection Designer Elaine McCarthy enhanced that effort with beautifully considered projections — such as the Orion star effect, the passing of the moon, snowfall, and the clever projections of the setting and date on a center crosspiece.

David C. Woolard’s magnificent period costume design included an array of detailed uniforms, a menacing villainous look for Teague and the bad guys that resisted cliché, radiant personalized gowns for Ada and, well, everything inbetween.

Leonard Foglia’s staging effortlessly integrates the multiple story lines and maintains clarity, moving large groups of characters with meaning and purpose. I especially enjoyed the covering of the corpses with huge stylized flags — which act as the “curtain” at the conclusion of Act One.

In spite of the uneven stage surfaces, Rick Sordelet managed to stage effective fight scenes. With all the grit and savagery in the story and the score, I wished the onstage gunshots had a bit more oomph than the popgun effect used here, but this was more than compensated by the real-time addition of the lightning storm that raged behind the set during the last 20-minutes.

Isabel Leonard as Ada and Nathan Gunn as Inman (photo: Ken Howard)

Isabel Leonard as Ada and Nathan Gunn as Inman (photo: Ken Howard)

As Inman, Nathan Gunn’s warm baritone sounded a bit tight early on at the extreme top when he was asked to do high, loud declamations. But soon thereafter, the seasoned baritone settled in to his customary appealing, rich sound and easy lyrical top. Gunn’s acting was natural and deeply internalized.

It is interesting to note that both leading women’s roles in Cold Mountain are mezzos, albeit with decidedly different musical personalities. Isabel Leonard gives an unforgettable performance as the noble, bent-on-survival Ada — pouring out a pliable, golden tone all evening long marked by throbbing emotion and exceptionally clear diction.

Emily Fons as Ruby Thewes (photo: Ken Howard)

Emily Fons as Ruby Thewes (photo: Ken Howard)

As the bitter and determined Ruby, Emily Fons proved to be the heart of the performance. She possesses of a vibrant, dark hued mezzo that is uncommonly smooth and responsive. Her conversational delivery had an informed wit (and later, a heartfelt impact) as she relents and admits the love she still harbors for her neglectful father. Of all the characters, Ruby has the most significant journey, and Emily seizes on every opportunity to engage us, to move us.

The role of Teague found Jay Hunter Morris in wonderful vocal form. Morris impressed with clean and incisive singing and provided a credibly duplicitous, and slyly evil, bounty hunter. Kevin Burdette took advantage of two chances to show off his imposing bass-baritone, as he alternated between a prophetic Blind Man and the reformed drunkard father, Stobrod Thewes.

As Junior, the opportunistic backwoodsman who sells deserters, Daniel Bates sang solidly and scored on all points. His licentious wife Lila was sung and acted with abandon by Bridgette Gan. The trio of backwoods women had beautifully schooled voices that blended harmoniously: Heather Phillips, Shabnam Kalbasi, and Megan Marino. The widowed young mother Sara, whom Inman encounters alone and forlorn, was sung with a limpid soprano by Chelsea Basler in a moving performance of intensity and pathos. The runaway slave Lucinda gave a wonderful opportunity for Deborah Nansteel to deliver a chilling scene, with a stirring and steely vocal delivery.

Though there was little that did not impress in this production, I felt that Inman’s tragic death had more gravity and focus. As the culmination of all the war weariness, human toll, meaningless destruction and soul-depleting catastrophes, his death seemed to go for too little. The “normal” life after the subsequent passage of time seemed too glib an ending for such an otherwise monumentally effective canvas.

There has been much national and international attention on this world premiere and it has been well placed. Cold Mountain is a new opera treasure and reaffirms the bright and original voice of Jennifer Higdon.

James Sohre recently completed a 40-year career with US Army Entertainment, much of it spent in Germany as the Command-level Entertainment Chief. He continues to travel extensively and write about opera and musical events. He is production coordinator for Opera Las Vegas and heads the Young Artists program for which he just directed “A Passion for Puccini,” an evening of staged arias and scenes from all of Puccini’s works.

Details Box:
What: Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, libretto by Gene Scheer
Who: Santa Fe Opera
Language: Sung in English
Performance reviewed: Aug. 17, 2015
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. Aug. 22 and 24
Information: Call (800) 280-4654 or boxoffice@santafeopera.org
Production note: Cold Mountain is co-commissioned and co-produced with Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with North Carolina Opera

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