SANTA FE, New Mexico, August 7, 2015 — Staging the world premiere of a new American opera is always risky business. Most audiences would still prefer enjoying yet another re-run of “La Bohème.” But Santa Fe Opera’s August 1 world premiere performance of Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” packed the house with a diverse audience of opera lovers and media types eager to see whether her adaptation of Charles Frazier’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning novel could come to life as a musical drama.
They were not disappointed.
From Scenic Designer Robert Brill stark, chaotic and remarkably adaptable set – which resembled an exploded Civil War-era barn – to Costume Designer David C. Woolard’s evocative period costuming, the staging of this new opera had a distinctly frontier American look and feel.
Better still, Jennifer Higdon’s score, beginning with its thin, almost surrealistic percussive opening to its full-throated post-Romantic finale proved flexible and reflective, moving each of this work’s many scenes rapidly and effectively forward while providing each vocalist with interesting and character-based palettes of sound.
But perhaps the most intriguing thing about this riveting musical drama is the brilliant work of Gene Scheer who provided the book/libretto that drives the production relentlessly forward.
Adapting a complex, almost picaresque novel like Frazier’s into a compact, coherent script with a reasonable stage running time is a significant challenge. Not only did Mr. Scheer exceed expectations in this department. He also succeeded in accomplishing something we have never seen on an operatic stage before.
Scheer has created a working libretto that transcends opera’s generally stage-centric tradition, reimagining the story with a genuinely cinematic sweep and scope, including the kind of time-shifting to which movie audiences have long been accustomed.
The difference is startling, and succeeds in rapidly drawing the opera audience into the action in an immediate and personal way. It’s an approach that, perhaps, may signal a new era for the way new operas are conceived and performed.
Like Mr. Frazier’s novel, this opera is at once epic and personal, charting the long and difficult journey of Confederate soldier W. P. Inman (baritone Nathan Gunn) who deserts his unit after being hospitalized in a desperate effort to be reunited with the love of his life, Ada Monroe (soprano Isabel Leonard).
Ada herself is beset with difficulties triggered by the war, but remains faithful to Inman without knowing whether he’s alive or dead. With unexpected aid from a resourceful but mysterious newcomer, Ruby (mezzo-soprano Emily Fons), she struggles to survive as the two women attempt to resurrect Ada’s farm in spite of the war ranging around them.
Pursued by the vengeful Teague (tenor Jay Hunter Morris) and his band of cutthroat vigilantes, all of whom are dedicated to executing Confederate deserters, Inman himself faces death again and again, meeting a variety of characters along the way back home.
It’s a compelling, realistic and often brutal story. But it all comes to life on the Santa Fe Opera stage, due to the tremendous dedication of the company’s strong cast, all of whom proved on opening night that they could excel as actors as well as singers.
As Inman, Metropolitan Opera regular Nathan Gunn and his strong, authoritative baritone projected a character who remained strong, decisive and yet compassionate at all times, the kind of man that a woman like the virtuous Ada would be willing to wait for.
For her part, Isabel Leonard’s Ada proved a worthy choice as the object of Inman’s ultimately tragic devotion. This spring, we enjoyed Ms. Leonard’s touching performance as Angelina in Washington National Opera’s antic production of Rossini’s popular “Cinderella” (“La Cenerentola”). It was a surprise and a delight to rediscover her great talent in an entirely new light last week in “Cold Mountain,” where she proved equally adept as the strong and faithful heroine of an American Civil War tragedy.
Alternately projecting strength and vulnerability, Ms. Leonard’s supple soprano quickly adapted to chart her character’s rapidly changing emotions in a fine performance further enhanced by the genuine romantic chemistry she generated with Mr. Gunn. The tension of Ada’s and Inman’s mostly long-distance relationship is the driving force at the vital soul of this opera, and along with Mr. Gunn, Ms. Leonard never failed to generate warmth and sympathy in her sensitive performance.
While the focus of “Cold Mountain” necessarily remains on Inman and Ada, this opera would ring hollow without its compelling list of supporting characters, many of whom turn in equally intriguing performances.
Chief among them are Emily Fons (Ruby), Jay Hunter Morris (Teague), tenor Roger Honeywell (Solomon Veasey) and bass Kevin Burdette (Stobrod Thewes). Ms. Fons in particular was highly effective as both the inspiration and the muscle behind Ada’s physical and spiritual resurrection and hope.
In turn, as essentially worthless yet key characters in the story, Mr. Morris, Mr. Honeywell and Mr. Burdette supply the ballast and the villainy that balance the story, all of which are strongly reinforced by their distinctive vocal characterizations.
The Santa Fe Orchestra provided strong, atmospheric background for “Cold Mountain,” functioning almost in an almost Wagnerian (albeit modernist) role as an equal participant in this opera’s storytelling under the baton of conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
High marks go as well to SFO chorus mater Susanne Sheston and her fine choir of SFO apprentice singers who provided some of this opera’s most glorious and unexpected musical moments during their compelling, hymn like choral commentaries.
It’s no surprise that SFO has wisely added an additional performance of “Cold Mountain” due to its overwhelmingly positive reception. Unlike many contemporary operas that can disappear quickly without a trace, “Cold Mountain,” slated to be performed soon by co-commissioners Opera Philadelphia, Minnesota Opera and North Carolina Opera may very well prove to be the exception to the rule as other companies compete for its next performances. This opera’s compelling story, music and singing make it a must-see for opera aficionados willing to give contemporary American opera a second look.
For those who can’t attend a performance either at Santa Fe or at one of this opera’s upcoming venues, there’s also good news. The original cast premiere of the opera was recorded, and will be released at a future date. You can’t get a better or more positive launch than this.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
Four performances of “Cold Mountain” remain, including the August 24 extra performance for which a good selection of tickets still remain available. For tickets and information, visit the Santa Fe Opera website.