Before I get to Cold Mountain, it’s worth reflecting on what has been a banner season for Opera Philadelphia. First came Andy: A Popera, an imaginative, genre-defying collaborative work that brought together two unlikely artistic bedfellows (OP and The Bearded Ladies), with inspired results. Next, La Traviata, in a visually handsome production, showcased Lisette Oropesa’s sensational Violetta – a role debut of international stature.
Individually – and especially together – the two exemplified Opera Philadelphia’s steady upward climb as a company of significance. Cold Mountain is another step, and a very different challenge – a large-scale new work, premiered in partnership with Santa Fe Opera.
It’s also another success – Jennifer Higdon’s work is one of several new operas I’ve heard in the last decade or so – and the first one I can easily imagine remaining in the repertory for years to come.
I say this because both the libretto – based on Charles Frazier’s bestselling novel – and the score find a level of crowd-pleasing accessibility that never feels pandering or dumbed-down. Cold Mountain, a combination character study, romance, and Civil War history, is a tough book to translate into action – much of it is very interior – and Frazier has largely managed it in a way that retains the poetic mood.
Higdon’s achievement is even greater, I think. Her opera is a richly melodic work that feels simultaneously traditional and fresh. I was occasionally reminded of some celebrated predecessors – Barber and Copland, especially – in her expansively “American” writing.
Yet Higdon has her own musical language, especially evident in ensemble passages. The great set piece here is “Buried and forgotten,” a superb chorus that comes late in Act II, and shows off just how well Higdon writes for multiple voices. (In general, the second act of Cold Mountain is stronger than the somewhat episodic first.) Another hallmark of Higdon’s skill is her ability to paint with orchestral color – there are lovely and highly individual details throughout, especially in the strings and percussion. All is realized with distinction by conductor Corrado Rovaris, and the orchestra and chorus (the latter under the direction of Elizabeth Braden).
Orchestral lushness is plentiful – but when voices are engaged, Higdon pulls back significantly on her forces, scoring the accompaniments with delicacy. This has the great advantage of making the text clearly audible – and also allowing lyric voices to be heard to maximum advantage.
It certainly suits the exceptionally fine Cold Mountain cast, who do themselves and the work proud. Principal singers Jarrett Ott and Isabel Leonard could hardly be improved upon vocally or dramatically. (As is obvious from the start, they’re also physically attractive, almost to a fault – but if Leonard and Ott look as gorgeously unscathed by the Civil War as Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable did, I doubt audiences will object.) Ott’s high baritone has a gloriously free, spinning upper register – the words always clearly articulated – and he conveys heart-tugging sincerity. Leonard’s diction isn’t quite as vivid, in part because she uses a very plausible Southern dialect in her singing. But her soprano-ish mezzo is a beautiful instrument, and she navigates the high-lying tessitura with ease. I was even more impressed by her acting – full of nuance and emotionally connected throughout.
There’s terrific support from Cecelia Hall, another high mezzo (ideally, her timbre would be more different from Leonard, with whom she shares a number of scenes) – and Jay Hunter Morris, a fabulously theatrical presence. Paul Groves, Marietta Simpson, and Anthony Michaels-Moore also make much of their roles.
Groves, Simpson and Michaels-Moore are major singers with important careers – their presence here is a testament to Opera Philadelphia. So too, in a different way, are two performances by young sopranos, whose careers have been mentored by the company. In the scene-stealing role of a young mother, Rachel Sterrenberg sings beautifully, and acts with real depth. Also, Heather Stebbins – her soaring upper register confirms the fine impression she made last year in Ariadne auf Naxos.