New Higdon Opera Taps Into Personal Cost Of Civil War

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Isabel Leonard and Nathan Gunn star in the premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s ‘Cold Mountain’ at Santa Fe Opera.
(Production photos by Ken Howard)
By Paul Hertelendy

SANTA FE, N.M. — On a desert hilltop 7,000 feet above sea level with sweeping mountain views, the Santa Fe Opera thrives each summer in an indoor-outdoor theater that is roofed over, but open to the sides where the winds waft in. Despite occasional thunderstorms and temperature variations, the 2,200-seat house attracts the faithful in large numbers to an annual season of about two months’ duration — some 40 performances of five operas.

'Cold Mountain' is Higdon's first opera.
‘Cold Mountain’ is the first opera by Pulitzer Prize winner Higdon.

Among the highlights this summer is the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain, which explores how the Civil War poisoned even the most rural corners of the South. The production opened Aug. 1, and performances remain on Aug. 22 and 24. Co-commissioned  and co-produced by Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Minnesota Opera in collaboration with North Carolina Opera, Cold Mountain will be staged next in Philadelphia Feb. 5-14, 2016.

Higdon, 52, traces her own roots to the North Carolina highlands, where the stark story based on the best-selling book  by Charles Frazier is set. It’s a sprawling, three-hour tale with close to 20 scenes and 28 singers in the cast. Unwieldy? Yes. But it brings home the plight of the wartime stay-at-homes and disillusioned Confederate deserters, seen from the less familiar southern perspective. In the epic words of the text, “War chisels the soul.”

Mountain ensemble
With close to 20 scenes and a cast of 28, ‘Cold Mountain’ is a sprawling, three-hour tale.

Writing in a thoroughly consonant manner, Higdon provided several pleasing vocal highlights in Act Two, including a stirring quintet and the ensuing ghoulish Cadaver Chorus of the “buried and forgotten” Confederate soldiers, brilliantly projected. These are followed by the memorable tragic aria of the heroine Ada. But Higdon was challenged in maintaining musical tension and interest throughout the lengthy opera, with the onstage drama often overwhelming all else. Librettist Gene Scheer succumbed to the temptation of excessive detail from the book; some whole scenes could have been omitted.

If the lovely Ada reminds one of Scarlett O’Hara, the villain Teague with his posse is an American parallel to Javert in Les Miserables – the relentless Home Guard pursuer of the hero Inman, the deserter/war protester. It all hits home. The long separation of the lovers traces an arc, closed briefly with Ada and Inman reunited, as unfriendly gunfire constantly encroaches.

Emily Fons plays Ruby, whose smarts save the farm.
Emily Fons plays Ruby Thewes, whose smarts save the farm.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, as Ada, was predominant in a cast that included baritone Nathan Gunn as Inman and tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Teague,  the snidely insinuating bounty hunter who struck me as the most fascinating and scary of them all. These singers were abetted by the down-to-earth character of Ruby (Emily Fons) whose smarts save both Ada and the farm; Ruby’s father (Kevin Burdette), who fiddles his way through life; the promiscuous Preacher (Roger Honeywell); and the resourceful escaped slave Lucinda (Deborah Nansteel).

Given the starvation, wanton killing, and sexual assaults, one wonders how anyone survived the daily ordeals. To spice it further, the opera offers a boat wreck, military battles, an amiable country fiddler, and a firing squad — and philosophical figures repeatedly ask, “Who am I? What is my function?”

In view of Higdon’s accomplishments as a symphonic composer, I was surprised by the small role allotted to the orchestra, apart from isolated clashes. I’m certain that the lessons learned here will impel her (only the third woman to have an opera performed at the SFO) to carry off bigger and better operatic challenges, rather than just “fishing for guppies when you’re sitting on a whale,” to quote Scheer’s libretto.

Ultimately, the moral of the tragic tale: In stressful times, having a cat’s nine lives may still not be enough.

Asked if she was edgy attending her world premiere, Higdon responded, “No, the worst part was rehearsal, to make sure that everything worked.” Ever meticulous, she added several notes to the flute part and to certain vocals between the first and second performances. The work is currently being recorded in Santa Fe for Pentatone.

Quinn Kelsey and in 'Rigoletto.'
Father, daughter: Quinn Kelsey and Georgia Jarman in ‘Rigoletto.’

In other operas heard, the SFO’s finely honed rehearsal process, more generous than most major companies, was nowhere more evident than in Verdi’s Rigoletto (remaining performances Aug. 19, 25 and 28), with the most moving pairing I’ve ever encountered in about 15 productions during my lifetime. Despite a flawed production, the interplay of the deeply loving, deeply troubled jester with his daughter Gilda was heart-rending to the core, and his profound affection was palpable. This from a superlative Rigoletto, the Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey, essaying the jester role for the first time. The brutal staging spotlighted an old, flabby, obese body, further contrasting with the daughter (Georgia Jarman), a beauty who sang an exquisite “Caro nome.” Kelsey’s fury at the corrupt overlords and his desperate contrasts of vile revenge versus boundless affection were unforgettable, accentuated by stage director Lee Blakeley and newcomer conductor Jader Bignamini, both talents to watch.

The producers and designers played their usual games. The setting was moved from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and Rigoletto’s hunched back became instead a club foot (conflicting with the libretto). The sets were deliberately rickety and teardown-worthy; the meager stage lighting suggested that the SFO had neglected to pay its electric bills this summer.

Then there was  Richard Strauss’ powerful one-act Salome,  already performed here at the Santa Fe Opera in 10 previous seasons. (Remaining performance Aug. 27) The story may be biblical, but that doesn’t mean it’s sacred. For the current SFO production, in the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils,” not a single veil is thrown off. All the attire recreates elegant late 19th-century fashion, as if out of Mad King Ludwig’s realm. Instead of a cistern, Jochanaan the imprisoned holy man is in a shabby office in western clothes, acting like a writer. The sword-wielding executioner never appears, but the holy man’s corpse and severed head do, allowing Salome to smother the remains with passionate kisses. When she is ordered killed by her grossed-out stepfather Herod, she retreats instead into a picture-frame setting containing what may or may not be her alter-ego, a directorial device that could assure Salome continued life while sidestepping one of opera’s most gruesome family-feud murders.

But musically, this 16-cylinder Salome still works, with Straussian voices robust enough to shake the foundations, and an overachieving orchestra under the masterful David Robertson. The Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda is riveting in the title role, with a Niagara of an upper voice range.  Tenor Robert Brubaker is the consummate decadent ruler Herod, lusting after his stepdaughter. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny is an unassailable lay-down-the-law Jochanaan.

In the ultimate silliness, Salome’s famous dance, now confined to mere arm movements, provides all the excitement of a cop directing traffic along the Santa Fe Plaza.

Once director Daniel Slater gets through here, could someone else please show us the real Salome, out of Strauss, from Wilde? No, no naked dance required; just some semblance of the true scenario with its violence and sex obsession. This work may be the opera world’s ultimate object lesson in decadence and incest, executed with the unique voluptuousness imparted by R. Strauss & O. Wilde.

The 2015 season also features Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment and Mozart’s La finta giardiniera. The 2016 season cast is headlined by Patricia RacetteSusan Graham, and Leah Crocetto.

Born in Eastern Europe and long based in the San Francisco area, Paul Hertelendy has reviewed more than 600 opera performances, variously for the Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, and now the web journal artsSF.com.