HIGDON: Cold Mountain
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HIGDON: Cold Mountain

CD Button Leonard, Fons, Nansteel, Basler; Gunn, Morris, Honeywell, Burdette; Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program and Orchestra, Harth-Bedoya. English text. Pentatone PTC 5186583 (2)

Recordings Cold Mountain hdl 616
More Like Cold Smiles: Leonard and Fons in Santa Fe
© Ken Howard
Recordings Cold Mountain Cover 616

COLD MOUNTAIN, THE FIRST OPERA by Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, is based on Charles Frazier’s bestselling (and National Book Award-winning) 1997 Civil War novel, which was also made into a movie, in 2003. The opera received a well-publicized world premiere at Santa Fe Opera in August 2015 (captured in this recording from Pentatone) and a second production at Opera Philadelphia this past February.  

About two-fifths of the opera, which features a creative and adroit adaptation by librettist Gene Scheer, is the kind of strong, original, ear-grabbing writing one would expect from Higdon, whose orchestral scores are justifiably praised for their refreshing vitality and brilliant colors. And indeed, any time the opera’s action heats up, or something ominous such as a storm or an attack rears its head, Higdon provides music with grit, substance and fire. The instrumental interludes are some of Higdon’s best material, and her bad-guy characterization of the fearsome Teague, leader of a posse that hunts down war deserters, is exceptionally striking. 

But much of the remainder of the piece—the back-and-forth dialogue that forms the bedrock of the work—is soft-edged, prairie-tinted prettiness. It’s superficially attractive but artistically anonymous. To Higdon’s credit, she sets her texts with an eye toward clarity, and most of the melodic lines are vocally sympathetic, but they tend to meander. The duet for Ada (Isabel Leonard) and Inman (Nathan Gunn) that ends Act I soars nicely but could be any romantic duet for any two characters. Veteran librettist Scheer (Moby-Dick, Thérèse Raquin, An American Tragedy) shows thoughtfulness and imagination in adapting Frazier’s narrative-heavy novel for the musical stage, but Higdon, a first-time opera composer, might have benefited from more internal structure than Scheer’s prose libretto provides.  

As Ada, the southern lady forced to survive on her own after the death of her father, Leonard sings with her customarily lush, enveloping tone, but her accent is uneven, and her diction gets mushy at the top of her range. She does, however, provide a rapturous rendition of one of Higdon’s best set-pieces, an aria to the recently murdered Stobrod, a drunken ne’er-do-well and absentee father. Ada laments that Stobrod, sung with a combination of ruggedness and sensitivity by bass Kevin Burdette, never really knew his admirable daughter Ruby, the earthy survivor who materializes to help Ada run her farm.As Ruby (for which Renée Zellweger won an Oscar), Emily Fons has a timbre very similar to Leonard’s, but she brings more three-dimensionality to her blunt, plain-spoken character.

Gunn’s Inman is vocally solid, as one might expect, but the dramatic range he provides is inadequate for a character on an Odysseus-like journey home that tests his emotional and physical limits. Jay Hunter Morris’s vividly drawn Teague emanates waves of danger, even when singing an innocuous folk song. Roger Honeywell, as Veasey, a corrupt preacher, is appealingly smarmy, especially in a blazing passage summarizing his triumph over his travails. Deborah Nansteel provides intense focus and sharp characterization as the runaway slave who frees Inman from a chain gang, and Chelsea Basler convincingly embodies the terror of a young mother whose baby is threatened by three Federal soldiers in one heart-pounding scene. Miguel Harth-Bedoya leads a flawless performance by the impressive Santa Fe Opera Orchestra.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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