Novel into opera: Cold Moun­tain

Pasatiempo - - JENNIFER GOES -

The pre­miere of Cold Moun­tain, an opera by com­poser Jen­nifer Hig­don and li­bret­tist Gene Scheer, was un­veiled at Santa Fe Opera in a pro­duc­tion that built cu­mu­la­tive power through the course of two very full acts and ended up touch­ing hearts just like an opera should.

The piece, based on Charles Fra­zier’s best­selling novel of the same name, fol­lows the Con­fed­er­ate de­serter In­man as he wends his way back to his beloved South­ern belle Ada. The book is of­ten de­scribed as the Odyssey trans­posed to the Smoky Moun­tains. Gene Scheer crafted a li­bretto rich in flash­backs and cross-cut­ting, but its over­laps of scenes yield a sur­pris­ingly co­gent whole.

Leonard Foglia’s di­rec­tion was clev­erly con­ceived and clearly ex­e­cuted. All the ac­tion un­rolls on an ab­stract set, de­signed by Robert Brill, in which mas­sive planks crisscross one another like gi­ant-sized pick-up sticks. Pro­jec­tions, de­signed by Elaine J. McCarthy, dis­play cap­tions of time and place on an up­per beam — a use­ful as­sist to view­ers hop­ing to sort out the chronol­ogy of events. Be­yond that, they pro­vide stun­ning vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ences, en­velop­ing the front of the theater in stars or sur­round­ing the ac­tion with a bliz­zard of snow.

The most re­mark­able as­pect of Hig­don’s score is its or­ches­tral writ­ing. The or­ches­tra played with car­ing at­ten­tion, its tim­bral blend and rhyth­mic pre­ci­sion re­spond­ing gen­er­ously to Miguel Harth-Be­doya’s lu­cid con­duct­ing.

Hig­don had a fine cast of singers to work with. Bari­tone Nathan Gunn and mezzo-so­prano Is­abel Leonard (who made much of the opera’s only real aria) made a hand­some In­man and Ada, both boast­ing rich voices in­fused with luster. Gunn sang with his ac­cus­tomed nat­u­ral­ness and ease. Emily Fons, also a mezzo-so­prano, brought rich tone to the role of Ruby. A ter­rific part came to tenor Jay Hunter Mor­ris by way of Teague. He crafted a com­pelling char­ac­ter role full of men­ace — one might say, an ac­tor’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion sup­ported by a finer voice than most ac­tors would pos­sess.

In her first opera, Hig­don takes a def­er­en­tial stance to the singers. One might ex­pe­ri­ence the work less as an opera in the tra­di­tional sense than as a play with an elab­o­rate mu­si­cal com­po­nent that in­cludes some es­pe­cially ad­mirable choral sec­tions. It tends to­ward a declam­a­tory style in its con­ver­sa­tional vo­cal writ­ing, and it can feel com­pelled to hurry on to the next episode when the lis­tener might pre­fer to linger. One felt that the piece’s sev­eral end­ings may have come in the wrong or­der, at least from a mu­si­cal point of view, and that an epi­logue, cast in the story’s fu­ture, might pos­si­bly be ex­cised — not be­cause it wasn’t touch­ing, but rather be­cause the work could stand with­out it.

Ad­di­tional per­for­mances of “Cold Moun­tain” take place at 8 p.m. on Aug. 14, 17, 22, and 24. Ce­celia Hall and Su­sanna Phillips in La finta giar­diniera; Nathan Gunn and Is­abel Leonard in Cold Moun­tain

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