Jennifer Higdon\'s&nbsp;<em>Cold Mountain</em>&nbsp;at Santa Fe Opera
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Review: Cold Mountain | Santa Fe Opera

Mountain Tops

At Santa Fe Opera, the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon's stunning first opera, Cold Mountain, should put this work in demand for years to come.

published Monday, August 3, 2015

Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain at Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, N.M. — Saturday evening’s Santa Fe Opera premiere of the operatic version of Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, with the orchestra conducted by Fort Worth Symphony’s Miguel Harth-Bedoya, was quite the event. Co-commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Minnesota Opera, and in collaboration with North Carolina Opera, this premiere attracted worldwide attention.

It is hard to imagine a better cast that what the Santa Fe Opera put on the stage. Baritone Nathan Gunn stars as the broken deserter Inman, soprano Isabel Leonard plays the steadfast Ada, the woman waiting for his return. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris is chilling as the slimy Union bounty hunter after him for the $5 reward and Emily Fons is wonderful as Ruby, the rough-as-a-cob woman who helps Ada keep the farm running in the meanwhile. All four are in top form, as is the rest of the large cast, reveling in singing Higdon’s vocally grateful music.

The media descended in record numbers and even PBS was there to film, but it was not just the presence of such top-level singers and a world premiere that created all the frenzy. Nor was it the librettist, Gene Scheer, who is a proven commodity with many successful libretti to his credit.

No, the glaring spotlight (and the pressure) was on Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon in her first outing as an opera composer.

Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain at Santa Fe Opera

The tab for opera on her website brings up a tantalizingly blank page with the words “coming soon.” Further, there is comparatively little vocal music in her output, although what is there, such as the lovely Love Sweet for soprano, violin, cello and piano demonstrates a talent for writing a vocal line. Perhaps this understanding of the voice comes from her background as a flutist, an instrument that uses the human breath in a singer-like manner.

Composers of Higdon’s stature rarely turn to opera, perhaps the most difficult and risky of all compositional endeavors, in mid-career (she is 50). Beethoven faced this same conundrum when he grappled with his only opera, Fidelio, at the end of his so-called middle period. Like Beethoven, Higdon is best known as a composer of instrumental works and large-scale pieces for orchestra such as her Pulitzer-winning Violin Concerto, but no Beethovenish struggle is apparent in Cold Mountain, even though it took her two years of dedicated efforts, passing up dozens of other commissions, to get it finished.

With her usual disarming candor, Higdon will readily tell you that she was new to the ins and outs of composing an opera when she accepted the commission, which required no small amount of bravery. But, as with other musical genres with which she was unfamiliar before embarking on a composition project for the first time, such as her Piano Trio, she immersed herself in research.

Also, her position on the faculty of the Curtis Institute gave her access to some of the best young singers in the country. Using both workshops and consultations with individual singers, Higdon’s openness to learn from her students, a hallmark of her teaching style, allowed her to absorb a wealth of techniques for writing vocal lines.

The results are remarkable.

Although firmly rooted in neo-tonality, the opera lacks soaring melodies, which many expected to hear. In fact, there wasn’t an earworm to be found, even in her Appalachian-influenced folk tunes. Instead, the vocal writing, while often quite beautiful, appropriate and dramatic, is somewhere between purely melodic phrases and a modern take on recitativo accompagnato.

In this, Cold Mountain is reminiscent of some of the songs in Stephen Sondheim’s chatty Broadway/opera fusions. Adding to this effect is Higdon’s natural instincts about the cadence of the words, setting them as they would be spoken. (We can thank the dialect coach, Dallas theater artist Lydia Mackay, for the accurate twang.)

Thus, perhaps Cold Mountain is something new: better thought of as a theater piece, created out of a wide range of element by a brilliant composer who was operatically naïve (as science uses the term meaning previously unexposed). Whatever you want to call it, Cold Mountain is an astonishing triumph, destined to enter the operatic canon of frequently performed works.

One of the reasons for Higdon’s success is the carefully constructed libretto by Gene Scheer based on Charles Frazier's award-winning novel. Unlike Higdon, this is definitely not Scheer’s first operatic libretto. His list of triumphs is extensive, including the collaboration with Jake Heggie on another libretto derived from a novel, Moby-Dick, which premiered in Dallas in 2010. Being a composer himself, Scheer understands how to construct that all-important framework that opera requires. Cold Mountain could very well turn out to be his masterpiece.

Frazier’s sprawling novel, telling the story of a wounded and burnt-out confederate deserter’s Odysseus-like journey home to the woman he loves, seems unlikely for the operatic stage. The story felt cramped even in the 2003 film version, despite its ability to follow Inman’s perilous journey geographically and mount his epic battles complete with galloping horses and armies.

Scheer boils the novel down to its essence and concentrates on the human relationships Inman forms along the way and long distance with those waiting for his return. There are still enough battles to require the services of fight staging expert Rick Sordelet, but it s not these physical confrontations that stick in the memory. Instead, it is Inman’s personal confrontations with all kinds of people that he meets long the way that shines out, such as the his encounter with the freed slave Lucinda (played by Deborah Nansteel).

Scheer brings the spirits of them all back for a touching ensemble at the end of the opera when Ada, his true love, asks him to “tell me everything” about his journey home. Each one says to tell her about their part in helping him to get there as well as teaching him an important life lesson in the process.

The past is the parent of the present and Scheer tells the story by hopping back and forth in time to show the genesis of the events. He also makes all of the scenes overlap to create a seamless narrative. While effective, these temporal shifts present a significant challenge for both the director and the set designer. Such fluidity works nicely in film, when rapid changes of time and place are easy to portray. But, it is far more difficult to make work on the stage.

Photo: J.D. Scott
Jennifer Higdon

To accomplish this, director Leonard Foglia (who directed another mountain-centric premiere this year, Everest at The Dallas Opera) and designer Robert Brill set the action in no particular place. Large black planks crisscross the stage and a network of ramps and platforms allows for different levels. Being nowhere, they become everywhere: from the farmhouse to the wilderness. A section even becomes a boat that overturns. Using black on black is an old magician’s trick to make things appear and disappear and so it is used here.

As to the details about Higdon’s music, there is much to say. (A coveted look at the score or even a second hearing would sharpen, or maybe even contradict, these impressions, but such is not the case at the present).

It is immediately apparent that she came to opera through a symphonic prism. The orchestration is far from what you would expect in an opera and many in attendance were mystified by it. Further, although most was superb, it didn’t all work equally well and she may rewrite (or not) some passages for subsequent performances. Some musical word-painting is too obvious, such as imitation gunshots when referenced in the libretto or flutes twittering at the mention of birds.

But once you adjust your ear, Higdon’s use of the orchestra is fascinating. She incorporates the orchestra as part of the stage: reflecting, predicating, and even participating in the action.

She uses it in every possible combination, alone and together: wind band, brass band, string section, percussion ensemble, and solo instruments with minimal accompaniment. There is, for example, one extended passage using just a pair of bassoons and another that sounded like it used only the harp and celeste. One section only uses some chattering percussion. But when she pulls out the full orchestra stop, which she does frequently, the results are thrilling.

As mentioned at the outset, the opera is helped by all members of the large cast, who are equally strong vocally and dramatically as they bring the Frazier/Scheer panorama to life.

Further, the Santa Fe orchestra under the Fort Worth Symphony’s Musical Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya was in top form in Higdon’s famously difficult music. But it is the unexpectedly magical combination of Scheer and Higdon that will put Cold Mountain on the map.


» Other reviews from the 2015 Santa Fe Opera season:

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Mountain Tops
At Santa Fe Opera, the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon's stunning first opera, Cold Mountain, should put this work in demand for years to come.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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