Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Ermonela Jaho is an emotively powerful Violetta in ROH's La traviata

Perhaps it was the ‘Blue Monday’ effect, but the first Act of this revival of Richard Eyre’s 1994 production of La Traviata seemed strangely ‘consumptive’, its energy dissipating, its ‘breathing’ rather laboured.

Vivaldi scores intriguing but uneven Dangerous Liaisons in The Hague

“Why should I spend good money on tables when I have men standing idle?” asks a Regency country squire in the British sitcom Blackadder the Third. The Marquise de Merteuil in OPERA2DAY’s Dangerous Liaisons would agree with him. Her servants support her dinner table, groaning with gateaux, on their backs.

Porgy and Bess at Dutch National Opera – Exhilarating and Moving

Thanks to the phenomenon of international co-productions, Dutch National Opera’s first-ever Porgy and Bess is an energizing, heart-stirring show with a wow-factor cast. Last year in London, co-producer English National Opera hosted it to glowing reviews. Its third parent, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, will present it at a later date. In the meantime, in Amsterdam the singers are the crowing glory in George Gershwin’s 1935 masterpiece.

Il trovatore at Seattle Opera

After a series of productions somehow skewed, perverse, and/or pallid, the first Seattle Opera production of the new year comes like a powerful gust of invigorating fresh air: a show squarely, single-mindedly focused on presenting the work of art at hand as vividly and idiomatically as possible.

Opera as Life: Stefan Herheim's The Queen of Spades at Covent Garden

‘I pitied Hermann so much that I suddenly began weeping copiously … [it] turned into a mild fit of hysteria of the most pleasant kind.’

Venus Unwrapped launches at Kings Place, with ‘Barbara Strozzi: Star of Venice’

‘Playing music is for a woman a vain and frivolous thing. And I would wish you to be the most serious and chaste woman alive. Beyond this, if you do not play well your playing will give you little pleasure and not a little embarrassment. … Therefore, set aside thoughts of this frivolity and work to be humble and good and wise and obedient. Don’t let yourself be carried away by these desires, indeed resist them with a strong will.’

Burying the Dead: Ceruleo offer 'Baroque at the Edge'

“Who are you? And what are you doing in my bedroom?”

'Sound the trumpet': countertenor duets at Wigmore Hall

This programme of seventeenth-century duets, odes and instrumental works was meticulously and finely delivered by countertenors Iestyn Davies and James Hall, with The King’s Consort, but despite the beauty of the singing and the sensitivity of the playing, somehow it didn’t quite prove as affecting as I had anticipated.

Brenda Rae's superb debut at Wigmore Hall

My last visit of the year to Wigmore Hall also proved to be one of the best of 2018. American soprano Brenda Rae has been lauded for her superb performances in the lyric coloratura repertory, in the US and in Europe, and her interpretation of the title role in ENO’s 2016 production of Berg’s Lulu had the UK critics reaching for their superlatives.

POP Bohème: Melodic, Manic, Misbehaving Hipsters

Pacific Opera Project is in its fourth annual, sold out run of Puccini’s La bohème: AKA 'The Hipsters', and it may seem at first blush that nothing succeeds like success.

Edward Gardner conducts Berlioz's L’Enfance du Christ

L’Enfance du Christ is not an Advent work, but since most of this country’s musical institutions shut down over Christmas, Advent is probably the only chance we shall have to hear it - and even then, only on occasion. But then Messiah is a Lenten work, and yet …

Fantasia on Christmas Carols: Sonoro at Kings Place

The initial appeal of this festive programme by the chamber choir, Sonoro, was the array of unfamiliar names nestled alongside titles of familiar favourites from the carol repertoire.

Dickens in Deptford: Thea Musgrave's A Christmas Carol

Both Venus and the hearth-fire were blazing at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance during this staging of Thea Musgrave’s 1979 opera, A Christmas Carol, an adaptation by the composer of Charles Dickens’ novel of greed, love and redemption.

There is no rose: Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

This concert of Christmas music at St John’s Smith Square confirmed that not only are the Gesualdo Six and their director Owain Park fine and thoughtful musicians, but that they can skilfully shape a musical narrative.

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Ada (Isabel Leonard) recalls saying goodbye to Inman
08 Feb 2016

Cold Mountain, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia deserves congratulations on yet another coup. The company co-commissioned Cold Mountain, an opera by Jennifer Higdon based on Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s celebrated Civil War epic.

Cold Mountain, Philadelphia

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Ada (Isabel Leonard) recalls saying goodbye to Inman

 

It premiered at Santa Fe last summer and is now launching an East Coast premiere run in Philadelphia. After nearly three hours of opera, the audience gave the performers and composer a standing ovation.

This company has a knack for assembling superb young casts. Every member of the cast—most of whom premiered the opera in Santa Fe—are comfortable in the roles, look the parts, sing well, and render the words clearly enough to render supertitles superfluous.

Two stand out. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris’s full voice, menacing aspect and Georgia drawl fit the villain Teague, and he finds a way to inflect each line with distinctive emotion and musicality. Young baritone Jarrett Ott, a local Pennsylvanian, recently replaced Santa Fe’s Nathan Gunn as W.P. Inman, the Southern deserter around whom the plot turns. Ott delivered a remarkably assured and characterful opening night performance, with no sign of nerves. If he lacks a bit of Gunn’s vocal splendor, his slightly thinner voice at the top gives Inman an appropriately vulnerable aspect.

cold-mountain-19.pngAda (Isabel Leonard) and her daughter Grace (Francesca Luzi) in the epilogue of the opera, which flashes forward nine years.

The rest of the cast is uniformly strong. New Yorker Isabel Leonard, a rising star singing lyric mezzo roles at major houses worldwide, looks every inch the lovely Southern belle. She portrays Ada Monroe with an even tone throughout and occasional flashes of emotion. Cecelia Hall, who comes by her North Carolina accent honestly, wove a distinctive and believable country counterpoint to Ada. A host of ensemble singers, many doubling parts, created memorable cameos, not least the veteran Anthony Michaels-Moore. Music Director Corrado Rovaris kept the band together.

Yet, unlike many who were there, and despite the fine technical performances from the singers, I found the evening disappointing, even dull. Morris aside, no one conveyed real emotional connection with the music. The fault lies not with them, but with the work itself. This relentlessly functional treatment of Cold Mountain just does not succeed as a music-drama. Overall, the result recalls what often occurs when Hollywood tries to film a popular epic book, like the 19-½ hour Tolkien series. Almost invariably such films become overlong collections of telegraphic scenes, each underwritten and underacted, held together only by the audience’s prior knowledge of the plot.

So, too, with Cold Mountain. In this case, the problem lies both in the libretto and the music. Many lines in the libretto are evocative and beautifully written for voice. Yet its overall structure is at once bland and cluttered: a three-hour slog, dialogue-by-dialogue, through the epic plot, with surprisingly few semi-arias or ensembles. What thereby goes missing, especially in Act I, is any serious engagement with the deeper emotions below.

cold-mountain-06.pngLila (Heather Stebbins, center) and her three sisters (LR, Olivia Vote, Lauren Eberwein, and Heather Phillips) encounter Inman ( Jarrett Ott, bottom) after he washes ashore following a dangerous trek downriver.

Cold Mountain is a profound tale—like the Odyssey, on which it is loosely based—about how extreme hardship forces us to distill our lives down to the simple thing, horrible and wonderful, that matters most. In adversity, we reveal who we really are. Such a plot should be tailor-made for an operatic libretto. After all, opera excels—and differs fundamentally from spoken theater—in its unique ability to expand interior moments of self-discovery into extended musical monologues of uncommon expressiveness. Just think of the Shakespeare operas of Giuseppe Verdi, who—despite a boundless admiration for the Bard—ruthlessly trimmed and revised major his plays into tight libretti. The result: arias and ensembles like Otello’s “Dio mi potevi!” Iago’s “Credo,” and Desdemona’s Willow Song. Or consider the operas of Benjamin Britten, in which the monologues of Peter Grimes and Lucretia let us glimpse into their souls.

The libretto of Cold Mountain goes through the motions but makes almost nothing of such moments. When Inman resolves to free himself from chains, Sara shoots the fleeing Union soldier, Ruby realizes that she loves her father, and Ada and Inman reconcile… critical moments pass in a blink of an eye, are hijacked for other purposes, or receive a clichéd treatment.

Jennifer Higdon’s bland musical score compounds the lack of dramatic focus. Higdon, who teaches at Curtis Institute, is a polished and prolific composer of concertos, chamber music and orchestral pieces. She has a flair for crafting slowly evolving mélanges of musical color and texture. Yet this is her first opera, and the challenge seems to throw her for a loop.

cold-mountain-10.pngRuby (Cecelia Hall) and Ada (Isabel Leonard), at right, are visited by villainous Home Guard leader Teague ( Jay Hunter Morris) and his young protégé, Birch (Andrew Farkas).

Most of Cold Mountain is written in a recitative or parlando dialogue, which hardly sustains much dramatic punch. Only a few arias or ensembles appear, and those that do lack melodic, harmonic or rhythmic novelty or focus. Higdon’s style is a (now conventional) mix of atonality and popular genres, in her case mostly open intervals (fourths, fifths and various intervals in diminished modes) somewhat uncomfortably mixed with traditional Southern themes. Her attempts to characterize more intensely generally take the form of giving different characters and moods their own colors. Soft strings provide a background, Ada gets woodwinds, Ruby gets percussion, Inman (and others) gets spiky agitated brass when he is upset, Teague receives ominous bass instruments, and so on. At best these efforts produce musical effects—some interesting, some pleasant (as with several horn ensembles) and some fleeting emotional flickers—but they create no overarching dynamic tension or flow, as an opera score should, let alone insight into the emotional or dramatic circumstances.

Even Higdon seems to realize this. Half-way through the second act, at a critical dramatic climax when soldiers come back to life to sing of the war, she throws in the towel and inserts an utterly traditional 19th century gospel chorus. This “Ken Burns moment” is by far the most successful musical coup in the opera, yet its utter incongruity begs the question of what the rest of the music is meant to achieve. The end of Act 2 takes a stab at a few unpersuasive ariettas and duettinos, only to let the opera peter out almost accidently, with Ada in seeming mid-phrase. Throughout, the music seems incidental and emotionless, as if it were written as a movie score.

The staging, also shared with Santa Fe, exacerbates the lack of clear dramatic focus. Also in this way recalling the Odyssey, Cold Mountain turns on the contrast between the unknown and dangerous world far away and the special place we call home. Inman wanders endlessly through the varied and hazardous landscape of the wartime South, while Ada remains fixed in a bucolic Southern country valley. It is a valley with a snake, of course, but the plot ends by restoring a familial utopia free not just from war, but from sexism, racism, class prejudice and personal anxiety. The unit set—a gloomy pile of scattered timber and coal—does not do justice to either major theme. Its static, unvarying enclosed darkness gives little sense of a hostile wartime world, while it also resembles in no way the potential Garden of Eden that is Cold Mountain. The production is somewhat improved visually by uncommonly clever lighting, which permit characters to come and go through a veil of light, and scenes to change quickly during a long evening at the opera.

Andrew Moravcsik

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):