This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, which premiered at Santa Fe in 2015, is an example of what seems to be becoming the standard American formula for new opera. It takes a story from a best selling book that has already been made into a Hollywood film and turns it into an opera. Add to that that it’s a melodrama set in the currently fashionable Civil War South. Melodramatic it certainly is. Within five minutes Owens (Robert Pomakov) has been stabbed and buried alive and his son (Adrian Kramer) bound, gagged and dragged off to the army. A little later our hero, a Confederate deserter played by Nathan Gunn, rescues Laura (Andrea Nūnez) from being thrown from a cliff by her preacher boyfriend (Roger Honeywell). He ends up as part of a heap of chained together corpses. This production is rough on Canadian singers. There’s much more in the same vein with summary executions, baby torture, a choir of dead soldiers and the hero dying with the last shot of the piece. All of this is spun around the romance between the hero, Inman, and his classy but clueless girlfriend Ada (Isabel Leonard) who is busy dodging the attentions of the creepy and repulsive Teague (Jay Hunter-Morris) with the help of the sassy but practical Ruby (Emily Fons).
I liked the score, which is perhaps best described as modern eclectic. Higdon is not afraid to use dissonance for dramatic effect but she also finds ways to weave in folk tunes, church music and other lyrical elements. There are also elements of minimalism. It’s through sung in an operatic version of Southern American and there’s not much that could be called a “number” but, all in all, it manages to steer the difficult line between not sounding trivial and not offending the traditional opera audience rather well.
The performances are very good. Nathan Gunn is suitably heroic as Inman and Hunter-Morris makes a very believably unpleasant Teague. The girls are an attractive pair with Leonard’s bright soprano contrasting nicely with Fon’s appropriately earthy mezzo. Supporting them are twenty or so named soloists, some of them multi-tasking. Miguel Harth-Bedaya brings out the drama, and the melodrama, in the score effectively enough.
The live recording is issued as a multi-channel SA-CD for those so equipped. It plays as regular stereo on a conventional CD player and sounds realistic and well balanced. The booklet is quite a lavish affair with a synopsis and full, cued, libretto as well as colour illustrations of the production.