Higdon’s New Opera Spotloghts Homeland Ordeals

SANTA FE, NM—How the Civil War poisoned even the most rural corners of the South is the theme of the opera tragedy “Cold Mountain,” a noble first effort by composer Jennifer Higdon premiered here Aug. 1.

Higdon, 52, traces her own roots to the North Carolina highlands where the stark story based on the best-selling book is set. It’s a sprawling three-hour tale with close to 20 scenes and 28 singers in the cast. Unwieldy? Yes. But it brings home the plight of the wartime stay-at-homes and disillusioned Confederate deserters, seen from the less familiar southern perspective. In the epic words of the text, “War chisels the soul.”

Writing in a thoroughly consonant manner, Higdon was a pleasant surprise in fashioning several vocal highlights in act two, including a stirring quintet following Sara’s scene, and the ensuing ghoulish Cadaver Chorus of the fallen soldiers brilliantly projected, with the refrain “Buried and forgotten.” These are followed by the memorable tragic aria of the heroine Ada. Higdon was challenged in maintaining musical tension and interest through the three-hour span, with the on-stage drama often overwhelming all else.

If the lovely Ada reminds you of Scarlett O’Hara, the villain Teague with his posse is an American parallel to Javert in “Les Miserables”—the relentless Home Guard pursuer of the hero Inman, a deserter/war protester. It all hits home. The long separation of the lovers traces an arc, closed briefly with Ada and Inman reunited, with unfriendly gunfire constantly encroaching.

Mezzo Isabel Leonard was predominant in a cast of baritone Nathan Gunn (Inman) and character-tenor Jay Hunter Morris (Teague), the snidely insinuating bounty-hunter who struck me as the most fascinating and scary character of all. These were abetted by the down-to-earthy Ruby (Emily Fons), whose smarts save Ada and the farm, Ruby’s father (Kevin Burdette) who fiddles his way through life, the promiscuous Preacher (Roger Honeywell) and the resourceful escaped slave Lucinda (Deborah Nansteel).

Given the starvation, the wanton killing and sexual assaults, one wonders how any one survived the daily ordeals. To spice it further, the opera offers a boat wreck, military battles, an amiable country fiddler and a firing squad—-and philosophical figures repeatedly asking who am I? What is my function?

Higdon being a symphonic composer, I was surprised by the small role of the orchestra, apart from isolated clashes. I’m certain that the lessons learned here will impel Higdon (only the third woman composer ever at SFO) to bigger things, and not just “fishing for guppies when you’re sitting on a whale,” to quote Gene Scheer’s libretto.

Greater conciseness would help the reprises of this work due in Philadelphia, Minnesota Opera and North Carolina Opera. Librettist Gene Scheer succumbed to adding too much detail out of the book, when he could well have X’d out the four-sisters scene and the Sara-and-baby segment, which were both superfluous.

Ultimately, the moral of the tale: In stressful times, having a cat’s nine lives may still not be enough.

COMPOSER NOTES—Asked if she was edgy attending performances of her world premiere, Higdon countered,”No—The worst part was rehearsal, to make sure that everything worked (well).” Ever the perfectionist, she added several notes to the flute part and certain vocals before the second performance….The work is currently being recorded in Santa Fe.

“Cold Mountain” by Jennifer Higdon, in world premiere at Santa Fe (NM) Opera, through Aug. 24. Three hours, one intermission. For info: (505) 986-5900, or go online.
┬ęPaul Hertelendy 2015
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

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