“Cold Mountain” is a long, bleak night in Santa Fe Opera premiere

August 06, 2015
By Charles T. Downey
Nathan Gunn and Isabel Leonard in Jennifer Higdon's "Cold Mountain" at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Nathan Gunn and Isabel Leonard in Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Few moments equal the excitement of the world premiere of a new opera. The theater darkens, and music that very few people have heard before unfolds before you.

This crucial tradition continued at Santa Fe Opera this year with the world premiere of Cold Mountain, the first opera by American composer Jennifer Higdon, heard Wednesday evening.

The story, taken from Charles Frazier’s brilliant, wide-ranging novel of the same name, concerns the Ulysses-like journey of Inman, a deserting Confederate soldier, back to the woman he loves. Ada, meanwhile, struggles to keep herself and her farm going after her father’s death. She and Inman have had only a fleeting flirtation when the War of Northern Aggression breaks out, but they hang all their hopes on the slim chance of seeing each other again.

Rarely has a new work had so many good things going for it: a beautiful story with exceptionally well-defined characters and drama; a librettist, Gene Scheer, with experience in bringing impossible-to-adapt books to the operatic stage (Moby-Dick); a composer with a solid track record and enough experience with voices to tackle writing her first opera; and a first-rate cast, put together by a company intent on presenting the work in the best possible light. The results, sadly, were disappointing.

Isabel Leonard and Nathan Gunn made a handsome couple as Ada and Inman. Composers often assign paired lover roles to soprano and tenor, for the heroic qualities of those voices, rather than mezzo-soprano and baritone. You could hear Higdon leaning heavily toward her leads’ extreme upper registers, particularly Ada, which put Leonard under considerable strain. The attempt to pronounce the English text in a hard-to-identify Southern twang, with heavily ground r’s, put both principals in unpleasantly nasal tone production.

As with Moby-Dick, Scheer had to strip away most of the substance of the novel to yield a libretto that would make a normal-sized opera. He uses many narrative overlaps to weave the parallel stories of Inman and Ada together, in more than one case with other characters and scenes in complex ensembles. This device does nothing to heighten the drama; in fact, it robs the actual reunion of Ada and Inman of most of its punch, because we have been listening to them sing together all night long. Most of the libretto stays close to Frazier’s story, except for the episode with Lucinda, a runaway slave who frees an almost dead Inman from a chain gang, sung intensely by Deborah Nansteel.

Jay Hunter Morris had a lot of fun as the trench-coated, cigarette-smoking villain, Teague, who orders a man buried alive in the shocking first scene and then decides to really get nasty. As Ruby, the young woman who comes to help Ada learn how to make a farm work, Emily Fons was a straight-shooting pistol, and another tenor, Roger Honeywell, was a whiney, slimy Reverend Veasey, who gets mixed up with Inman. Kevin Burdette has serious supporting turns as the Blind Man and as Ruby’s father, Stobrod, although if Ada thinks the drone music he plays is beautiful, she has a tin ear.

One of the ingenious minor details of Frazier’s novel is his inclusion of folk songs, hummed and sung by various characters, like Lorena, Aura Lee, Wayfaring Stranger, Fair Margaret and Sweet William, and Bonnie George Campbell. This was a natural element for Higdon and Scheer to take hold of in their opera, but something that was atmospheric in the book becomes associated here mainly with the evil character of Teague.  He opens the opera with what will become his signature tune, the Dorian-mode folk song Shady Grove. Other modal scales, often harmonized with saccharine seventh and ninth chords, pervade the score.

Unfortunately, for a symphonic composer, Higdon’s use of the orchestra here was limited and clichéd: always harp and metallic percussion cued up with nostalgic memories, and not much more than wisps of sound and nervous ostinati for much of the score. Even the use of the chorus is static, always homophonic, and a little dull. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya did his best with what he had, and the orchestra made quite a clatter in the combat scenes, which were a little ridiculous.

Leonard Foglia’s direction worsened the monotony of the experience, as did Robert Brill’s single dark set of black gravel and a chaotic jumble of crossed wooden beams illuminated by projections, designed by Elaine J. McCarthy. (You would think by this point that opera companies would shy away from sets made of moving wooden planks with video illuminating them.) Although the projections of stars and even the moon crossing the sky, cast onto the wings and ceiling of the theater, opened up the theatrical space, the sense of gloom created by this pervasively dark staging (lighting by Brian Nason) did not help the static music.

The track record for new works at Santa Fe Opera continues on a bad streak, with Cold Mountain taking its place next to failures like Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Oscar. One has to go back to Adriana Mater and The Tempest, in 2008 and 2006, respectively, to find successful new works, but not to worry. Failures far outnumber successes in new opera premieres throughout music history.

Cold M0untain runs through August 24 at Santa Fe Opera. santafeopera.org.

Charles T. Downey is a freelance writer on music and roving summer festival reporter. The rest of the year he lives in Washington, D.C., where he writes reviews for the Washington Post and moderates ionarts.org, a Web site on classical music and the arts. 

5 Responses to ““Cold Mountain” is a long, bleak night in Santa Fe Opera premiere”

  1. Posted Aug 08, 2015 at 7:42 am by YK

    That multiple opera companies commissioned an opera by an orchestral composer solely because of previous accomplishments, reflects the sad state of affairs in the opera world. Opera companies are willing to waste their limited resources on the composers .who have yet to learn this genre while lesser known composers who have mastered opera and vocal composition go unfunded.

  2. Posted Aug 08, 2015 at 9:27 am by Charles

    Amen to that. And they are doing exactly the same thing again in 2017. Mason Bates, who will compose the Steve Jobs opera, has never written an opera either.

  3. Posted Aug 08, 2015 at 1:54 pm by Thomas

    And Santa Opera inexplicably passed on doing the U.S. premiere of Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain….if someone can think of a more natural fit for that company, I’m all ears.

  4. Posted Aug 23, 2015 at 10:15 am by DGF

    This is one of the few reviews that has the courage to tell it like it is. Having read some of the other reviews I wondered if maybe they had seen a different opera than the one I saw.

    This was, without a doubt, one of the most tedious evenings I have ever spent in a theater. While I have great admiration for Ms. Higdon and some of her instrumental works, her gifts are not in vocal writing. To sit through a three hour opera constructed of primarily accompanied recitative was difficult, to say the least. There were precious few moments when Higdon allowed the voices to soar.

    There were occasional moments of beauty in the orchestral writing, but overall, Higdon employed hackneyed orchestral scoring in the battle scenes and in her underscoring for the vocal writing, as in chirping birds. The story was muddled and the stage direction/action was severely limited due to the unit set.

    Other reviews have suggested that perhaps the creative team should restructure some of the scenes for future productions, as this seemed like an opera that didn’t know how or when to end itself. Frankly, given the deficit in Higdon’s vocal writing, I don’t think this piece is redeemable. The audience response was enthusiastic, as it has been throughout this very mediocre season, and with Cold Mountain, it left me wondering if the Emperor had any clothes.

  5. Posted Aug 30, 2015 at 9:31 pm by Thomas

    So, why have all the other reviews except yours and the NY Times been glowing? Does no one have the courage to say the emperor has no clothes? Why has no one mentioned the totally unnecessary use of the “n” word and how at least a 1/2 dozen people walked out after it was used the night of the world premier? Thank you for at least being honest in your review.