Opera Warhorses

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World Premiere Review: All-Star Cast and Crew, Ardent Audience Ovation for Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2015

August 3rd, 2015

Charles Frazier’s Pulitzer Prize award-winning novel Cold Mountain is focused on two persons, Confederate soldier W. P. Inman and his Charleston-born sweetheart, Ada Monroe, whose lives have been transformed completely by the devastation that the Civil War wrought upon the South.

Composer Jennifer Higdon teamed with librettist Gene Scheer to create an opera out of Frazier’s sprawling work.

[Below: Composer Jennifer Higdon; resized image, based on a Charles Fair photograph from jenniferhigdon.com.]

HIGDON (400)

The creative team did not follow the novel’s structure, which alternates Inman’s and Ada’s stories. Instead, the creative team skillfully (and ingeniously) integrated both story lines. Scheer’s libretto creates a linear narrative that gives the audience a sense of what each character is doing at any point in time.

Nathan Gunn’s W. P. Inman

Leading a strong cast is lyric baritone Nathan Gunn as Inman.

In an interview with him before the “Cold Mountain” commission was announced, Gunn said that “as a musician, I don’t want to be a curator of opera. I want to help create the new ones” [see Heartland Heartthrob: An Interview with Nathan Gunn, Part and Heartland Heartthrob: An Interview with Nathan Gunn, Part 2.]

[Below: Nathan Gunn as W. P. Inman; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

S FE COLD 11 (400) GUNN

Gunn’s performance, not only beautifully sung, but a fine piece of theater, was the emotional center of the opera.

Wounded, demoralized by the death around him and the stupidity of the generals who led the Confederate troops, against all odds he manages to survive great hardships, finally to be reunited, however briefly, with Ada Monroe, the woman he loves.

Gunn’s operatic super-star status helps assure the success of any project to which he lends his formidable talent. His creation of the role of Inman should be regarded as one of the high points of his important career and a contribution of incalculable value to the opera’s future.

[Below: the Blind Man (Kevin Burdette, left) suggests to Inman (Nathan Gunn, right) that if he is thinking of deserting from the Confederate Army, he should do it now, rather than waiting; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Isabel Leonard’s Ada Monroe

Inman represents the catastrophic impact of the Civil War on so many of the soldiers who fought it. Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard) and her companion Ruby Thewes (Emily Fons) represent how many of the women found inner strength, coping  with the devastation that the war brought to the home front.

Raised a preacher’s daughter among the ladies of Charleston, Ada finds herself in a small town in mountainous Western North Carolina, where her late father had been minister when the war began.

[Below: Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard, left) and Ruby Thewes (Emily Fons, right) are pleased that their hard work has resulted in their survival, despite the war’s devastation; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Leonard has a wide vocal range and a repertory that encompasses both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Isabel Leonard.]

As Ada, much of her part lay high in her range, and Leonard performed the high tessitura of the role masterfully.

Ada’s poignantly brief reunion with Inman – their first opportunity ever for an intimate moment – provided a memorable opportunity to observe Leonard’s dramatic powers.

Emily Fons’ Ruby Thewes

The character of Ruby Thewes , the clearheaded, self-sufficient woman who can live off unpromising land and barter for survival, was vividly drawn by Wisconsin mezzo-soprano Emily Fons.

[Below: Teague (Jay Hunter Morris, right) taunts Ruby (Emily Fons, left) with the information that her father is a deserter from the Confederate Army; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Jay Hunter Morris’ Teague

The lead villain in the piece is Teague (Texas tenor Jay Hunter Morris), who has made a wartime career out of tracking down deserters and other persons deemed to be subverting the Confederate cause.

Morris’ natural Southern accent lends itself well to this broadly-drawn character. Morris’ acting ability makes Teague an arresting figure every moment he is onstage.

Since Morris is a peerless American heldentenor and a top choice of operatic management’s for the Siegfried roles in Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”, his appearance in this comprimario role redefines the term “luxury casting”. However, Morris brings such a feeling of authenticity to this character, Morris deserves commendation for his contribution to the birthing of this opera.

Kevin Burdette’s Stobrod and Blindman

Another native-born Southerner in the world premiere cast is Tennessee bass Kevin Burdette.

[Below: Ada (Isabel Leonard, right) tells Stobrod (Kevin Burdette, left) that it his daughter Ruby’s resourcefulness that has assured their survival; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Although he is a master of opera’s comic bass roles [Buff Buffo: An Interview with Kevin Burdette], he also now occupies a special niche as a character actor, especially in operatic world premieres. This is only one of four world premieres in which Burdette has performed or has scheduled in 2015. The other three were commissioned by The Dallas Opera and include new operas composed by Jake Heggie and by Mark Adamo.

For “Cold Mountain”, Burdette (who, incidentally, grew up not far from where composer Higdon was raised) brought his authentic Eastern Tennessee accent to the incisively drawn characters of the Blind Man and Stobrod. For Stobrod, whose fiddle-playing is a plot point, Higdon composed some fiddle music which, incredibly, Burdette plays onstage, while singing.

Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Monroe and Pangle

In yet another example of luxury casting, the eminent English Verdi baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore was cast in two roles – the solemn preacher Monroe, whose calling to preach in the mountainous North Carolina hinterlands is what brought Ada to Cold Mountain.

Michaels-Moore also plays Stobrod’s witless companion, the banjo-playing Pangle, who indiscreetly reveals what he and Stobrod have been up to to the merciless mercenary Teague, getting himself killed in the bargain.

Both the parts of Monroe and Pangle are brief, but Michaels-Moore brought his years of experience in making their appearances memorable. (He also sang the even briefer role of a chain gang guard.)

Deborah Nansteel’s Lucinda

Last year, I had praised Deborah Nansteel, who as “Carousel’s” Nettie, sang two of the great contributions to the “American song book” by Rodgers and Hammerstein  [see Review: Ryan McKinny Stars in Affectionately Mounted “Carousel” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2014].

Nansteel’s assignment in “Cold Mountain” is that of a fugitive slave who comes across the still living Inman in a group of executed prisoners chained together. Engaged in robbing the bodies of dead soldiers, Nansteel’s Lucinda, even though not trusting white men, in an act of human decency, saves Inman’s life by releasing him from his chains.

Nansteel’s dramatic contribution was yet another extraordinary example of the care taken to assure a successful world premiere.

[Below: Lucinda (Deborah Nanstell, standing center) threatens to shoot Inman (Nathan Gunn, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. ]


Other Cast Members and the Musical Performance

Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell appears as the preacher Veasey, who has abandoned the “path of righteousness”. Canadian bass Robert Pomakov is Owen.

Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists appearing in the production included Texas baritone Michael Adams; California soprano Chelsea Basler playing Sara; New York tenor Daniel Bates playing Junior and Charlie; Alabama bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee; Tennessee baritone Nicholas Davis; Pennsylvania soprano Bridgette Gan playing Lila; Georgia tenor Cullen Gandy; Ohio bass-baritone Calvin Griffith; Lebanese tenor Roy Hage playing Reid and a Chain Gang Guard; California mezzo-soprano Shabnam Kalbazi; Canadian tenor Adrian Kramer playing Owens’ son; Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano Megan Marino playing Claire; Texas tenor Tyson Miller and California tenor John Matthews Myers.

Other Apprentice Artists in “Cold Mountain” are Florida tenor Cooper Nolan, Canadian soprano Andrea Nunez as Laura; Pennsylvania baritone Jarrett Ott; Virginia baritone Andrew Paulson; Ohio soprano Heather Phillips as Katie; Maine bass Tyler Putnam as Thomas; Texas tenor Galeano Salas; Kansas tenor Aaron Short; North Carolina bass-baritone Adrian N. Smith; New York tenor Derrek Stark; Minnesota tenor Jack Swanson; District of Columbia bass Kevin Thompson; Washington bass-baritone Peter Tomaszewski; Texas tenor Christopher Trapani; Pennsylvania tenor Benjamin Werley and New York baritone Jorell Williams.

For a world premiere, the conductor, always a critical element in mounting any opera, has a myriad of  responsibilities for translating the composer’s intentions into a musical performance. The Santa Fe Opera secured Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the music director of the Fort Worth (Texas) Symphony Orchestra, for the opera’s launch. Under Harth-Bedoya’s baton, Higdon’s complex and often luminous music was beautifully realized.

I believe that Higdon’s choral passages, particularly the lament for the fallen soldiers, will become early favorite excerpts from the opera. These passages were realized by the Santa Fe Opera chorus, composed of Apprentices, under the direction of Chorus Master Susanne Sheston.

Leonard Foglia’s Staging, Robert Brill’s sets, Brian Nason’s Lighting Design and Elaine J. McCarthy’s Projections

The team assembled for the creation of Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” contains the core team that assisted composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer in the launching of their momentous opera “Moby Dick”, arguably the most successful American opera so far this century.

The sets were created by California designer Robert Brill, whose massive unit set for “Wozzeck” created in collaboration with Broadway director Des McAnuff I praised [Humanizing “Wozzeck”: Hawlata, McAnuff, Brill Create a San Diego Opera Masterpiece – April 17, 2007].

For “Cold Mountain” Brill created an ingenious multi-level set, whose irregular planes and surfaces, gave Massachusetts Director Leonard Foglia the ability to change scenes rapidly.

[Below: Robert Brill’s sets for “Cold Mountain”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Foglia staged the world premiere (and subsequent mountings) of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” [see World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010 and my subsequent reviews of “Moby Dick” performances in San Diego and San Francisco].

Foglia brings fast-paced staging utilizing the work of New York lighting designer Brian Nason. The spectacular projections of Elaine J. McCarthy, another veteran of “Moby Dick”, added to the visual experience.


I recommend the cast and production of Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” to the veteran opera-goer, especially one who appreciates the new directions in American opera, and the person new to opera who loves the book “Cold Mountain”.

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