Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain - A West Coast Premiere

Credit: Phil Channing

Credit: Phil Channing


The American Civil War became one of this country’s most divisive conflicts. Much has been written and sung about it including Charles Frazier’s book Cold Mountain (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997) and American composer Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain – an adaptation of Frazier’s novel - which received a west coast premiere in collaboration with Music Academy of the West at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara August 2 and 4.

The new production was magically conceived thanks to Los Angeles-based James Darrah’s visionary direction, Adam Larsen’s visually brilliant backdrop projections, savvy conducting from Daniela Candillari with the Academy Festival Orchestra and intensely engaging performances by Academy Vocal Fellows who are students of the Music Academy’s summer Vocal Institute program.

The cast members pulled it off with a sense of professionalism and aplomb one might expect from established opera companies. These talented student performers were given hands on training at the Academy from vocal faculty, Higdon and master class input from two of the opera’s original cast members: Isabel Leonard and Jay Hunter Morris. Even so, baritone Evan Bravos (Inman), soprano Anneliese Klenetsky (Ada), mezzo-soprano Talin Nalbandian (Ruby), tenor Sangmoon Lee (Teague), tenor Andrew Zimmermann (Veasey) and mezzo-soprano Samantha Rose Williams (Lucinda) were instrumental in turning Higdon’s work into a riveting and memorable experience.

The August 4 performance of this two act, over two hour music-drama began with a pre-concert talk where Higdon touched on ideas and challenges involved in writing her first opera. In fact, in a 2015 interview with NPR she expressed thoughts about giving herself a crash course by studying opera scores of Mozart, Puccini, Adams, etc. and consulting with singers from the original cast before the work was premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in 2015. “For me, music is about emotion…so I’m hoping that people who come to the opera, who know the novel, will identify with the characters and understand,” she says.

The book is not an easy read due to its densely verbose, hard-hitting descriptions of fictionalized Confederate soldier W.P. Inman’s journey from battlefields and hospital to desertion and a four year foot trodden journey back to his roots and sweetheart Ada Monroe in the mountain country of North Carolina. It also contains moments where people come together in a spirit of compassion and neighborliness. And the story highlights the fact that Inman is a trained soldier who wants to save lives rather than take them.

Gene Scheer of Moby Dick and It’s a Wonderful Life fame also wrote Cold Mountain’s libretto and his essay in the program booklet includes these thoughts about complexities involved in adapting Frazier’s work from page to stage. “My primary goal in writing this libretto was to produce something that would be faithful to the spirit of the novel, to create the scaffolding around which Jennifer Higdon could re-imagine the story through her inspired music.” He achieved this in writing a streamlined dialogue that doesn’t hold back in its boldness, humor and socially relevant message about trying to rise above adversity.

Higdon is one of the most sought after composers of our time, having received a Pulitzer Prize in Music for her violin concerto and Grammys for a viola and percussion concerto. The Cold Mountain world premiere opened to mixed reviews so there was anticipation about how this production would present itself. The whole thing unfolded like scenes within a scene in a kind of atmospheric patchwork where past and present sometimes overlap. The music doesn’t sound theatrical, or even operatic in the sense that arias, when they occurred, were not bel canto or required Queen of the Night technical control. And diction used by the singers did not always have a sense of southern style inflection.

Higdon’s version of Cold Mountain seems more like a vocal tone poem than opera, especially because of the story’s thick and thorny plot. Her writing is tonal, honest and contains angular and lyrical vocal lines intertwined with lush orchestration that often produce eerie starkness. Her use of winds drew out refreshing nuances and provided a nice contrast from the dark, mellow interactions between strings, brass and percussion – that usually indicated something sinister was happening on stage. There were no down-home bluegrass tunes or moonshine antics, except when Stobrod, Ruby’s kindhearted, conniving, fiddle playing father was around. Bass Peter Barber’s piquant account worked just fine.

There were, however endearing interludes that depict male choirs, Federal and Confederate soldiers in battle, finely crafted duets between Ada and Inman, Ruby and Ada and an appearance by Lucinda, a slave desperately longing to be free, given a memorable reading by Williams – a character not in the book but specifically added to the libretto by Scheer.

One of Cold Mountain’s strengths is the way Higdon’s score and Larsen’s backdrop projections (and Pablo Santiago’s lighting touches) seem totally interconnected. The music-drama was brought to life in a visual kaleidoscope of leaves, silhouettes of soldiers, splashes of flickering water and other patterns that show the intensity of on stage action from a cast that was dressed in 1880’s urban wear designed by Molly Irelan. The swirling images also enhanced Francois-Pierre Couture’s functional stage design that consisted mostly of a pile of mud stacked to one side of a grey background with doors.

The opera’s fast pace scene changes produced several stunning effects that linger in the mind long after the curtain closed: A happenstance between Inman and Sara, the destitute country girl, (poignantly sung by Martin) where they seem suspended in a dreamlike sequence; Ruby’s mending of her father’s wounds and duets with Ada, beautifully projected by Nalbandian; Veasey the minister, and his attempt at repentance, sung with great conviction by Zimmermann; Ada and Inman’s long awaited reunion in a snowy forest. Throughout the opera, Bravos and Klenetsky remained a well-matched duo in terms of vocal timbre and acting ability. These qualities seemed to soar in their second act duets, which gave the music an exhilarating sense of breath and rejeneration.

Hearing the premiere of a work by a composer of our time can be an enlightened event, and Cold Mountain provided a powerful and timely slice of Americana in musical form. Hopefully this will not be Higdon’s first and only opera.