Novel into opera: Cold Mountain
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