In Review > North America

Cold Mountain

PHILADELPHIA
Opera Philadelphia
2/7/16

In Review Philadelphia Cold Mountain 2 hdl 216
Andrew Farkas, Morris, Leonard and Hall in Leonard Foglia's production of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain at Opera Philadelphia
Photographs by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
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Jarrett Ott as W.P. Inman and Leonard as Ada Monroe
Photographs by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

OPERA PHILADELPHIA'S PRESENTATION OF Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain (heard Feb. 7) reaffirmed the power and high quality of the composer’s first-ever opera. A co-commission with Santa Fe Opera and Minnesota Opera in collaboration with North Carolina Opera, the highly compelling production by Leonard Foglia bowed in New Mexico last summer (see OPERA NEWS, Nov. 2015). The greatest adjustments in transferring the physical production from a modern, semi-open space into a nineteenth-century proscenium house performance concerned Brian Nason’s highly atmospheric lighting. Naturally transcendent as any Santa Fe performance is, some parts of Cold Mountain—most especially the short, mercifully restrained epilogue—worked better in the Academy of Music’s highly traditional confines. As in Foglia’s staging of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, the strong images, pointed blocking and incisive crosscutting gave flow and cumulative impact to what is in places (in the first half especially) a disjointed narrative. The second half generates greater cohesion and tension. Given Higdon’s propensity to illustrate sound effects orchestrally, the soundlessness of the stage fighting seemed a mistake. Higdon’s strength lies in finely textured lyrical orchestration and punctuation; vocal lines evoke Barber, with hints of Prokofiev in skirmish scenes. She clearly relishes vocal ensembles, and these are the score’s great moments, rather than the narrative set piece and love duets, which are pleasant but not melodically grabbing. Corrado Rovaris conducted a responsive orchestra and chorus with relish and propulsion. 

By and large Gene Scheer skillfully transmutes Charles Frazier’s ultra-discursive, stream-of-consciousness novel into dramatically viable scenes. The taciturn Southern deserter hero Inman thus becomes inevitably rather garrulous, not least in fantasy ensembles joining him with the distant object of his odyssey home, the sensitive Ada. Sensibly, the resourceful runaway slave Lucinda (merely described in the novel) here has dramatic agency and bears witness to an African-American perspective entirely missing chez Frazier. Oddly excluded is the novel’s poignant evocation of North Carolina’s exploited, expelled Native Americans, whose absence haunts Inman.

Because Nathan Gunn, who created Inman at Santa Fe, had to drop out on short notice, his Santa Fe cover Jarrett Ott assumed the part with considerable distinction and often ravishing, airy vocal finish. Even Gunn had seemed too young for the “gutted” returning vet; Ott brought the testing role not only lovely, Pelléas-like sound but a deep investment in the words. Ott and Isabel Leonard’s beauteous Ada were aptly matched if rather unscathed for Frazier’s central couple. Cecelia Hall did a beautiful job of singing and presenting the resourceful, hardscrabble Ruby, who saves Ada’s farm; still, I missed Santa Fe’s Emily Fons, who seemed born to the role and had stolen the show. Paul Groves, in incisive if top-challenged form, was funny and completely idiomatic as the hypocrite preacher Veasey.

Foglia drew even more elaborately detailed performances from the two principal cast members who remained in place: Leonard’s resilient mezzo, much more convincing in this idiom than in Rossinian roulades, gave much more nuance to Ada’s text and was thus more moving. In the mustache-twirling role of the deserter hunting Teague—in the opera a rival for Ada’s hand—Jay Hunter Morris had a field day of memorably oozed and chiseled phrases—more Mime than Siegfried tonally, but always striking. Kevin Burdette’s pair of character roles—a blind seer and Ruby’s raucous but musically inspired father Stobrod—remained fully drawn portraits, perhaps aptly etched in “music theater” rather than “classical” timbre.

Cold Mountain boasts several fine cameo roles very well cast here, largely from locally active singers. Singing beautifully, Rachel Sterrenberg made the desperate single mother Sara appealing and heart-breaking. Heather Stebbins showed a lovely, substantial soprano as Lila, a mountain siren who ensnares Inman with her Rhinemaiden-like sisters (and creepy husband, well limned by tenor Alasdair Kent). But pride of place went to Marietta Simpson’s Lucinda: young Deborah Nansteel had taken this part with aplomb in Santa Fe, but here the veteran Philadelphia mezzo gave both words and tone infinitely touching and vivid expressiveness. The other ensemble members fared admirably. Cold Mountain again proved an impressive first opera and a memorable theatrical experience.  —David Shengold 

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