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Review: Expectations were high; ‘Cold Mountain’ is impressive

SANTA FE, N.M. — After weeks of much publicity and activity, the Santa Fe Opera’s long-awaited world premiere of “Cold Mountain,” based on Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning novel, opened last week.

An epic, multifaceted production, it is the result of a joint effort between author, Frazier, composer Jennifer Higdon and librettist, Gene Scheer. With director Leonard Foglia and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya at the helm, the opera lives up to expectations.

Scheer’s poetic libretto follows Frazier’s Homer ‘Odyssey’-inspired novel closely, interspersing some of its passages throughout. Scheer greatly succeeds in unfolding a cohesive narrative of deserter W.P Inman, a wounded, war-weary Confederate soldier, who embarks on a long, arduous journey back to Cold Mountain where he plans to marry Ada, the woman he loves.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Higdon embellishes the libretto with her evocative music gleaned from an inventive sound-palette of orchestral color. Higdon’s score is characterized by driving rhythms, especially in moments of intense conflict, lyricism and faint echoes of Aaron Copland including some down-home tuneful bluegrass.

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“Why ‘Cold Mountain,’ ” I asked Higdon. She said she had grown up in the area, that the story resonated with her, adding that she carried the concept of the opera inside her for a long time before beginning to compose.

Nathan Gunn leads the all-star gathering of magnificent operatic voices as Inman. With his rich-toned, molasses-laced baritone that leaves one wanting more, he makes an introspective Inman, stoically persevering adversity and the deeds of the people he meets along the way.

Soprano Isabel Leonard, alluring as Charleston-educated Ada, sings with a fluid, lustrous voice. Lovely is their duet in which Ada remembers a previous meeting. Reference is made to Orion. Captivated, we see the constellation, surrounded by glittering stars, projected on stage. “See Orion’s Belt?” Inman sings, ” … The stars and I will return together and all questions will be answered … .”

Emily Fons, singing with ringing, resonant tone, is delightful as the take-charge, mountain girl, Ruby, who comes to help Ada run her farm.

Wonderful Jay Hunter Morris as the malicious Teague, leader of the Home Guard, is outstanding with his bright, commanding voice. Praise also goes to the strong supporting voices that channel their characters superbly. Among the many, Kevin Burdette, as fiddle-playing Stobrod, Ruby’s father, Deborah Nansteel as a black, runaway slave and Roger Honeywell as the minister, Vesey.

Scenic designer Robert Brill creates a set consisting of an intimidating weave of floor-to-ceiling large wood planks meant to symbolize the devastation and chaos of war.

The permanent set serves as the abstract canvas, if you will, for lighting designer Brian Nason and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy on which to create their magic. Forest tree branches, birds in flight, rain, snow and more are projected on the stage. Spotlighting the proper scene effectively transitions the shift in action.

Fine, first-rate directing and staging by Foglia not only generates great characterizations from the singers, but renders the changeover from scene to scene, seamless. Authentic Civil War era costume design by David C. Woolard visually enhances the production.

With an eye to the stage, much cuing, and an ear to his orchestra, Maestro Miguel Harth-Bedoya, keeps the pace briskly moving forward with his clear, dynamic conducting. Sound from the orchestra pit, especially from the string section, with solos woven throughout the score, is commendable.

Choirmaster Susanne Sheston’s male chorus is to be applauded for its pleasingly sonorous hymn-like elegies sung as wounded men and later as dead soldiers, though cut-offs are not always exact.

The realistically choreographed fight scenes by fight director Rick Sordelet are compelling, and the fight between Inman and Teague is especially impressive.

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