Operagasm Exclusive Review: East Coast Premiere of Cold Mountain at Opera Philadelphia Pretty Much Best Thing Ever
by Jessica Lennick
From the opening moments of Cold Mountain, the world is broken and fragmented. Even before the music started, the imposing and stark set of Robert Brill looked like nothing more than a pile of burned timber—just another barn torched by one side or the other in the midst of the interminable fighting. There is no overture, and the first sound we hear is not music at all—it is the sound of shovels as an old man digs his own grave. The first music, when it happens, does not sound like anything one would associate with Jennifer Higdon–rather it is an a cappella, twangy melody that is pure Appalachia. The next thing we see is a father killed trying to save his son and buried in the hole he had dug, while his son dies despite his best efforts.
This is where we began. Cold Mountain is, despite its hopeful epilogue, a story about the horrors of war and with only a few missteps, guides its audience through the loss, misery, and change that total war brings. The libretto of Gene Sheer is filled with colorful and evocative language and in the first act guides us through many disparate vignettes about life before and during the war and tells us the tale of confederate soldier W.P. Inman and Ada Monroe, the love who he has to leave behind. The differences between the past and present, and the various characters which circle through make a remarkably concise and effective case against the dehumanizing nature of war in the first act. However, the pace slows down in the second act, and is not better for it. Cold Mountain is a massive novel, and was already trimmed down mightily to fit the needs of this opera, but it needed rather more—especially for a stretch in the middle of Act II where themes which had been expounded upon before came up a third or fourth time to no greater effectiveness.
As for the music, Jennifer Higdon has created a remarkable first opera. The music is always in service of the drama, and she uses the great lexicon of orchestral colors at her disposal to firmly anchor the action in place. She chooses a few places in the score to unabashedly evoke the music of 19th century Appalachia, but more interestingly uses modern violin effects and ad lib choral effects to haunting use. Higdon has a special gift as an operatic composer for choral movements. Each was gorgeously done—from the opening, hushed whispers of “What was his name?” in the hospital scene, to a final, thrilling chorus number as everyone Inman has met on his journey enjoins him to “Tell her… tell her everything” the chorus movements were stirring and effective. The smaller ensembles also benefit from Ms. Higdon’s mastery of counterpoint—the duets between Ada and Inman are done with particular tenderness, and a scene between the two of them on the Christmas before the beginning of the war moved me to tears. As a lover of new opera, I am so excited by what I heard, and I hope that Jennifer Higdon writes more.
The orchestra, led by Corrado Rovaris, did full justice to every technique employed by Ms. Higdon, and was beautifully balanced. Special credit should also go to chorus master Elizabeth Braden—the sound from the chorus was ravishing and each choral movement had its own color.
The cast went from strength to strength. Much has been made of Jarrett Ott’s stepping in for Nathan Gunn as W.P. Inman, and for good reason. He has a beautifully sweet instrument that is full and ringing, and is a generous and committed actor. Isabel Leonard has an equally beautiful tone which is perfectly even, top-to-bottom, and even high-lying passages were easily produced. Ms. Leonard is a mezzo and had a number of soaring passages which could cause sopranos grief and sounded simply ravishing throughout. Every singer onstage has mastered this score, and each one of them captured their characters.
I was struck by the work of the cast as an ensemble, and truly, each of the singers onstage was believable and truthful—credit for this surely must go to the direction of Leonard Foglia. When Ada and Ruby (beautifully performed by Cecelia Hall) meet, the differences between the gentile, Charleston-reared-Ada and the rough-and-tumble Ruby are immediately clear and it is a pleasure to watch them both give each other strength.
Buttressing all these detailed performances was the set design of Robert Brill, and the projection design of Elaine McCarthy. Robert Brill’s imposing set managed to transform variously into the surface of water, a boat in the middle of a storm, and the roof of a cave. The projections of Ms. McCarthy turned the wreckage into a moonlit-wonderland, a snowy winter, and a stormy sea. I have seen many productions use projections because they can–Ms. McCarthy’s work was truly beautiful and worked seamlessly with Mr. Brill’s design to make the most effective projection design I’ve seen at the opera.
If you are in Philadelphia, I highly recommend you see Cold Mountain before it closes on February 14. It is worth your time and is also, I hope, the first of many additions to the canon by Jennifer Higdon.