We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Isabel Leonard and Nathan Gunn in Cold Mountain at Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard for SFO)

You read Charles Frazier's best-selling novel.  You saw the movie with Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renee Zellweger. Do you want to see the opera premiering this season at the Santa Fe Opera?  Yes, you do! You want to hear mezzo-sopranos Isabel Leonard and Emily Fons create the roles of Ada Monroe and Ruby Thewes, two characters who bond in sisterhood and change each other's lives for the better.  You want to hear baritone Nathan Gunn as the war-weary defector W.P. Inman and you want to hear tenor Jay Hunter Morris as the slimy villain Teague. They were as excellent dramatically as they were vocally.

Will you want to see this opera a second time?  Probably not.  And why is that?  Like so many contemporary operas in English, the language itself has not inspired award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon to write any memorable vocal lines, indeed, not any melody whatsoever.  And what is opera without melody?  A play with music is what it is. We were reminded of the soundtrack of a film. We have only good things to say about Ms. Higdon's instrumental writing which is highly textured and interesting.  Even in its dissonant passages illuminating battles, it is accessible.  But the vocal lines are strictly conversational and without lyricism. They might as well have been spoken.

We sensed a number of missed opportunities. When Pangle and Storbrod appeared onstage with a banjo, we became all excited, hoping that Ms. Higdon would have chosen an unorthodox path by including a banjo in the orchestra and by employing some folk tunes indigenous to that part of the South. No such luck! And when apprentice soprano Chelsea Basler (in an excellent performance as Sarah) sang to her baby, her vocal line did not even begin to suggest a lullabye, although we heard some lovely sounds coming from the harp. When the group of men-starved young women (beautifully sung and acted by apprentices Heather Phillips, Shabnam Kalbasi, Megan Marino, and Bridgette Gan) try to seduce Inman and Veasy (Roger Honeywell), we longed for more seductive music.  We were thinking of the Rhinemaidens!

Miguel Harth-Bedoya's conducting cannot be faulted and the orchestra sounded crisp and clear. The chorus sang magnificently, as usual, under the direction of Susanne Sheston. We particularly enjoyed the chorus of dead soldiers at the end which was quite moving.

Dramatically, everything worked. Leonard Foglia's effective direction had us experiencing Ada and Ruby's hardship on the home front in alternation with Inman's frightening and tortuous efforts to evade the Home Guard and come home to the waiting Ada. Librettist Gene Scheer wrote some fine texts that added to the drama and hewed closely to the spirit of the novel.

The scenic design by Robert Brill was a chaotic jumble of wooden planks, appearing somewhat dangerous for the artists, but fortunately there were no mishaps.  The set  worked best when some planks were repurposed as a boat in which Inman is crossing a river, a boat which sank. David C. Woolard's costumes were superb, giving us a good picture of the stylish but helpless Charleston lady that Ada had been and the capable farm woman she became under Ruby's tutelage and exhortation.

As a matter of fact, the relationship between the two women was more interestingly portrayed than Ada's relationship with Inman. For the latter, there is only a brief scene of their meeting and then their final ill-fated reunion for which we yearned to hear a more lyrical and tender duet. (This parallels the construction of the novel, of course.) Still we were intrigued by the idea that two very different women could form such a loving and worthwhile bond.  Ada teaches Ruby to read and to appreciate some of the finer things in life while Ruby teaches Ada to be independent and strong.

As Ruby's father Storbrod, bass Kevin Burdette turned in his usual fine performance.  Tenor Jay Hunter Morris not only sang magnificently as Teague, but created a character of menace who chilled us to the bone.

The Civil War was indeed a disgraceful event in our nation's history and, after a century and a half has passed, we observe that the wounds have still not healed.  That makes the topic eminently suitable for a great American opera. Our dismay over the evils of war will always be relevant to contemporary times.  The topic of damaged lives strikes very close to home as we deal with veterans of wars in the Middle East. So this is a valid subject for operatic treatment.  We only wish that the music had reflected our musical history as well.

(c) meche kroop

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