Sampling Perennial Desert Blooms, Part II

Sampling Perennial Desert Blooms, Part II
Isabel Leonard as Ada and Nathan Gunn as Inman in Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain.

There was plenty of buzz in the air as the audience filed in for the second performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain on August 5—and not just the convivial greetings among annual patrons of returning for Santa Fe Opera’s fifty-ninth season.

Indeed, there had been the feeling of buzz the night before at SFO’s press dinner; even though many in attendance had seen the opera’s world premiere on August 1, any response to a mention of the opera was mostly left to enigmatic smiles—and a mention that an additional performance had already been added to the schedule. That was fine with me: I wanted to be in the dark, so to speak, before experiencing the work for myself. I have not read Charles Frazier’s novel, but had seen the 2004 film. My only exposure to Higdon’s impressively growing oeuvre was a Madison Symphony Orchestra performance a couple of seasons ago of her brief, but arresting Blue Cathedrals. On the other hand, I was already a big fan of Gene Scheer as a librettist, still marveling over what he accomplished for Jake Heggie in adapting Moby Dick. And then there was simply the Santa Fe Opera experience itself …

The theater was everything I’d been led to expect. The sun is just dipping behind the Jemez Mountains at 7:57 p.m., and as smart as my phone is, it could not begin to capture the outline of the peaks peeking through the raked and draped black planks that form the basic set of designer Robert Brill’s set. The temperature is still hovering around 85 degrees; Richard Strauss once said that a conductor should never sweat, that was for the audience to do—but I’m not sure this was what he meant. I couldn’t have cared less about the heat; the views toward the open edges of the theater and the sense of occasion quickly bring back the thought I had the day before at a performance of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival: What took me so long to get here?

Having set the emotional stage for the experience, I’ll get to the critical summary at once. There was never a moment in the two-and-a-half hour work that there wasn’t something to admire, and there were occasional stretches of varying lengths completely spellbinding. But I wanted to love the opera more. Ultimately what was lacking for this auditor was a single moment of lyric or dramatic vocalism that just lifts you out of your seat.

Higdon frequently captures the vivid personalities of Frazier’s tale of would-be lovers separated by the outbreak of “the war of Yankee aggression,” and the tortured twists at home and near the battle lines as Inman desperately strives to return to his beloved Ada—who is dealing with her own raft of hardships. But Higdon’s best writing is consistently in the orchestra, and it is remarkable. She is not afraid to turn again and again to sparser, chamber music-like combinations of fascinating variety, but is fully capable of unleashing torrents of instrumental power with equally compelling coloristic combinations. And before we forget, let’s credit conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra for a fabulous job of realizing Higdon’s vision.

The singing was always committed, usually nuanced and occasionally superb. This was no surprise in the person of Jay Hunter Morris as Teague; if he can handle Wagner’s Wotan, it is no stretch to embody the surly sinister Home Guard captain. Morris good-naturedly accepted the lusty boos that greeted him during curtain calls.

Nathan Gunn was wonderful as Inman, finding an array of nuances in his baritone instrument for the heartbreak, yearning and despair in Inman’s epic journey back to Ada. Isabel Leonard portrayed the object of his obsession; possessing a clear and attractively strong voice, she sounded forced at the top of her range in the biggest moments. It seemed more a miscalculation of interpretation rather than a physical flaw, as if she didn’t quite trust the music to fully express the moment. Emily Fons was terrific as Ruby, the embodiment of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps gal who is the catalyst in helping Ada survive and save the farm.

Director Leonard Foglia navigated a treacherous path on a challenging set for his more than two-dozen performers; noticing that he has directed Moby Dick (and will again this season at Los Angeles Opera), it was no surprise to see his self-assured movement of the myriad characters and situations.

Which brings us back to Scheer. Having watched the film just before our trip began, my wife wondered, “how in the world does one turn that kind of story into an opera?” The film has no problem with time-shifting multiple times—neither does Scheer, skillfully juxtaposing, even blending and overlapping scenes. Ultimately the opera succeeds as only opera can, with the music and possibilities that ensembles provide in expanding the expressive depths of an already powerful tale. I would love to see it again—and there will be opportunities, with it already on the slate in Philadelphia this season, and an unspecified time slot committed from Minnesota Opera.

But really the only question now is … how soon can I get back to Santa Fe? The only thing I’m sure of is it won’t be another twenty years!