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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

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