Review: Higdon's new opera, Cold Mountain, at Santa Fe

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Isabel Leonard (Ada) and Nathan Gunn (Inman) in Santa Fe Opera's production of "Cold Mountain." KEN HOWARD for Santa Fe Opera

SANTA FE, NM - The new Jennifer Higdon/Gene Scheer opera Cold Mountain could hardly have premiered amid more intense expectations on Saturday at the Santa Fe Opera. Years in the making with some of the best voices and creative minds in the business, the opera's five performances were sold out in advance, an extra one was added for August 24, the Dutch recording label PentaTone committed to releasing it, and close to 50 media representatives were on hand.

"All of Philadelphia is here," exclaimed one Santa Fe Opera staff member, since Cold Mountain is co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia. Some were simply fascinated to know what Pulitzer-winning composer Higdon had wrought during the two years she was barricaded in her Spruce Street apartment writing the piece. And who wouldn't want to hear singers such as Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard and Jay Hunter Morris in prime form?

And?

It was as changeable as the Santa Fe day on which it premiered: This Odyssey-like Civil War tale about the Confederate deserter finding his way home to the woman he loves was alternately blazing hot, partly cloudy, charged with lightning, congested with traffic and a dreamy world unto itself.

Underneath it all was one of the more solid operas to come from an American composer in recent years. From moment one, any given vocal line was injected with the atmosphere of the setting, the psychology behind the character, and naturalistic inflections of the words being sung, sometimes with Appalachian-style melodies. The vocal lines also avoided the kind of leaden parlando that weighs down so many modern operas and moved fast enough to allow witty exchanges. Also crucial: Everything was so singable that baritone Gunn (the deserter Inman), soprano Leonard (the woman waiting for him) and Morris (the unscrupulous villain) all did some of their best-ever work.

But the tepid audience response to Act I isn't to be taken lightly. Though problems were mostly peripheral, they mounted up, starting with the Robert Brill set. Huge dark planks pointed out toward the audience every which way, vaguely suggesting a variety of locales, from battle fields to Christmas parties, marginally convincing as the latter and rather constricting as the former. It was so dark you weren't always sure what was happening - especially disappointing when Leonard Foglia's stage direction was being obscured.

Because the set wasn't all that adaptable, the non-chronological aspects of Scheer's libretto - it jumps back and forth in time, partly for narrative contrast, partly to give the composer a good dramatic trajectory - were muddled. Characters you thought were dead were suddenly up and around, and unless you had studied the libretto in advance, you maybe weren't sure why.

Also, Higdon's inner compass was compromised by outer details, the sort that suggested she was still morphing from a symphonic composer to a theatrical one. Emotional states that were well-projected in the vocal lines came with needlessly literal, gimmicky text painting in the orchestra and less relevant percussion plus Miles Davis-ish muted trumpets, diffusing a drama that, without traditional chronology, needed all the clarity it could get. The Santa Fe orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya was in fine form, maybe relishing those coloristic opportunities too much.

Act II, however, often felt like a different opera. The storytelling was more linear, but the music reflected a more rigorous sense of selection in Higdon's part, as the characters sank to almost unimaginable depths of misery. Often, vocal lines were supported with exactly the right pungent harmonies and, perhaps, a lone, lonely woodwind solo conveying complete despair in one moment, glimmers of hope in another.

Time and again in the second act, Cold Mountain bypasses your brain and hits you in the gut. Two masterstrokes come in the form of choruses, one from war victims who are buried and forgotten, and another after the soldier Inman is finally reunited with Ada. They try to explain whom they've become, and characters from previous scenes haunt Inman aggressively with lines like "Tell her of the slave you met" and "Tell her how the boat went down." But the epilogue showing Ada ten years after the war somehow fizzles.

Such problems are perfectly fixable in time for Opera Philadelphia's February 2016 run. Just get the mutes out of the trumpets. Take a blue pencil to the orchestration. And a wrecking ball to the set.

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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