Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

As The Tallis Scholars processed onto the Cadogan Hall platform, for the opening concert of this season’s Choral at Cadogan series, there were some unfamiliar faces among its ten members - or faces familiar but more usually seen in other contexts.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2017, Millennium Park, Chicago

As a prelude to the 2017-18 season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, during the last weekend. A number of those who performed in this event will be featured in roles during the coming season.

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH: radiant and eternal

Watching David McVicar’s 2003 production of Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House - its sixth revival - for the third time, I was struck by how discerningly John MacFarlane’s sumptuous designs, further enhanced by Paule Constable’s superbly evocative lighting, communicate the dense and rich symbolism of Mozart’s Singspiel.

A Mysterious Lucia at Forest Lawn

On September 10, 2017, Pacific Opera Project (POP) presented Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a beautiful outdoor setting at Forest Lawn. POP audiences enjoy casual seating with wine, water, and finger foods at each table. General and Artistic Director Josh Shaw greeted patrons in a “blood stained” white wedding suit. Since Lucia is a Scottish opera, it opened with an elegant bagpipe solo calling members of the audience to their seats.

This is Rattle: Blazing Berlioz at the Barbican Hall

Blazing Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra and The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girls' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining. An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.

Moved Takes on Philadelphia Headlines

There‘s a powerful new force in the opera world and its name is O17.

Philly Flute’s Fast and Furious Frills

If you never thought opera could make your eyes cross with visual sensory over load, you never saw Opera Philadelphia’s razzle-dazzle The Magic Flute.

At War With Philadelphia

Enterprising Opera Philadelphia has included a couple of intriguing site-specific events in their O17 Festival line-up.

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

Philadelphia: Putting On Great Opera Can Be Murder

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have gifted Opera Philadelphia (and by extension, the world) with a crackling and melodious new stage piece, Elizabeth Cree.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Elektra in San Francisco

Among the myriad of artistic innovation during the Kurt Herbert Adler era at San Francisco Opera was the expansion of the War Memorial Opera House pit. Thus there could be 100 players in the pit for this current edition of Strauss’ beloved opera, Elektra!

Turandot in San Francisco

Mega famous L.A. artist David Hockney is no stranger at San Francisco Opera. Of his six designs for opera only the Met’s Parade and Covent Garden’s Die Frau ohne Schatten have not found their way onto the War Memorial stage.

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum

The courtly palace may have been opera’s first home but nowadays it gets out and about, popping up in tram-sheds, car-parks, night-clubs, on the beach, even under canal bridges. So, I wasn’t that surprised to find myself following The Opera Box down the shaft of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe for a double bill which brought together the gothic and the farcical.

Proms at Wiltons: Eight Songs for a Mad King

It’s hard to imagine that Peter Maxwell Davies’ dramatic monologue, Eight Songs for a Mad King, can bear, or needs, any further contextualisation or intensification, so traumatic is its depiction - part public history, part private drama - of the descent into madness of King George III. It is a painful exposure of the fracture which separates the Sovereign King from the human mortal.

Prokofiev: Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution: Gergiev, Mariinsky

Sergei Prokofiev's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op 74, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. One Day That Shook the World to borrow the subtitle from Sergei Eisenstein's epic film October : Ten Days that Shook the World.

A Prom of Transformation and Transcendence: Renée Fleming and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

This Prom was all about places: geographical, physical, pictorial, poetic, psychological. And, as we journeyed through these landscapes of the mind, there was plenty of reminiscence and nostalgia too, not least in Samuel Barber’s depiction of early twentieth-century Tennessee - Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

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):