Men ask the way to Cold Mountain: There is no through trail
—Epigraph to Charles Frazier’s novel, Cold Mountain
It would be hard to imagine a billboard for a new world premiere opera with a more promising pedigree than Cold Mountain. In the full glare of national attention, Pulitzer-prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s original score based on the National Book Award-winning novel by Charles Frazier, had its first performance at the Santa Fe Opera Saturday and began its bid to become an American classic.
Set during the American Civil War, the novel begins as W.P. Inman, a Confederate soldier nearly recovered from a terrible battlefield wound, looks out toward the horizon from his hospital window in Raleigh, North Carolina, with nostalgic thoughts of his home on Cold Mountain.
“The window apparently wanted only to take his thoughts back,” Frazier wrote in the opening pages of the novel, setting forth a kind of rationale for the transformational journeys that follow in both the book and the opera. “Which was fine with him, for he had seen the metal face of the age and had been so stunned by it that when he thought into the future, all he could vision was a world from which everything he counted important had been banished or had willingly fled.”
The opera begins without an obvious starting point in the continuum between the audience and the darkened stage as dimly lit figures buried in shadows strike their shovels into what sounds like loose earth. It becomes obvious that they are digging a grave. After the men put down their shovels, the orchestra begins to tune up. Teague appears singing an authentic mountain tune and the orchestra becomes a part of the performance.
Teague is the villainous captain of the Home Guard. He is played by tenor Jay Hunter Morris. A former apprentice at SFO who appeared in the 2001 production of Wozzeck, Morris returns now from his role as Siegfried in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Wagner Ring Cycle. He is leading a party of ruffians, rounding up deserters. He is Inman’s nemesis and will fatally reappear more than once.
At a symposium at the New Mexico History Museum on Saturday, Cold Mountain author Frazier described how he came up with his protagonist W.P. Inman as a combination of four brothers, one of them his own great, great, great-grandfather. They worked small family farms on their own. None of them had slaves. Two of them survived. Not much is known about W.P. Inman except that he was in many of the most violent battles of the war, including the Battle of the Crater, which was marked by one of the cruelest, bloodiest explosions of the war with a total of 5,000 dead on both sides.
Homesick and filled with longing, W.P. Inman, decides to leave the hospital. Lyric baritone Nathan Gunn, one of the foremost leading men in opera, plays the role of Inman with elemental strength and sensitivity. Like Odysseus encountering Tiresias in the underworld, one of the first people Inman meets is a blind man, who asks him to describe a time when he wished he was blind. Obviously thinking of the battlefield, Inman sings an aria with the coming of the “age of metal” as a theme, obviously inspired by the Inman’s thoughts about the “metal face of the age,” in the book.
Gene Sheer, who wrote the libretto, made sure this poetic concept found its way from novel to song in the opera. As he described his role in the process, he emphasized the importance of sticking to the book whenever possible and especially for the best images and language. He has referred to these elements as “a slam dunk,” when they clearly stand on their own merits.
Asked this week about the music that she composed for Inman, Higdon said, she was struck by what was missing in him. “Because he’s hollowed out inside, because he’s in the military, I gave him a lot of orchestration choices,” she said. I use brass, horns, trumpets and trombones, but because he feels like part of him is gone inside, I actually wrote chords where the middle is missing.”
At the other end of the Inman’s journey, at Cold Mountain, is the woman he loves, but left to go to war. Ada Monroe, played by soprano Isabel Leonard, is seen barely coping with the harsh conditions of the times. Having grown up in the city of Charleston, she is unprepared for mountain life. She and Inman think of each other from different times, it seems, not as a flashback but as a corresponding sentiment and they imagine happier times as they flirted and teased each other.
“I decided Ada needed to be less formed at the beginning. She couldn’t cook for herself. She didn’t know how to handle things.” For Ada, Higdon chose woodwind music. Held back at first, it becomes more solid as the opera progresses.
Part of the plot involves Ada’s personal growth, much of it due to the help and support she is given by Ruby Thewes, a mountain girl, who has been abandoned by her drunken father – whose saving grace is that he is a fiddle player. Ruby (a crowd-pleasing mezzo-soprano played by Emily Fons) can’t read and write at first. She can’t draw pictures like Ada, but she knows how to do things. She knows how to listen to nature and make use of its gifts, as when she races off to find the plant from which she can make a medicinal poultice for a gunshot wound.
Higdon’s reading of Ruby also translates into music. Her survival instinct and savvy, the way she is always making lists in her head, “That immediately said to me a faster type of music,” Higdon said.
The story of the opera moves back and forth between Cold Mountain and Inman’s journey, coming together at times to regain that virtual relationship between Ada and Inman that keeps them going toward a promised reunion, while danger lurks on all sides from the corrupt Home Guard to the ruthless raiders that prey on the defenseless civilians and steal their food. Inman is helped by a freed slave and saves the life of a single mother and her baby. Life is dangerous and nothing is certain.
So central to the staging and narration of the play, the abstract set built from 78 planks and painted black, serves as bridge, cliff, embankment, trailhead, farmer’s field, raging river, camp site and hearth and home. Advances in projection techniques enables a variety of titles, textures and subtle effects, including a virtual three-dimensional vista that rotates like the night sky and complements the lover’s celestial connection to the constellation of Orion.
Directed by Leonard Foglia, the entire production conveys an enormous breadth of experience and has obviously attracted an impressive team of compatible spirits. Foglia has made a specialty of launching new operas, including Moby Dick and Everest.
The production moves on to Opera Philadelphia in February, 2016. North Carolina Opera announced Saturday that it has joined the consortium co-commissioning and co-producing Cold Mountain. North Carolina plans to include the new opera in its 2017-2018 season. Minnesota Opera, already a part of the consortium, has scheduled Cold Mountain for the 2018-2019 season.
Because of the enormous interest in SFO’s Cold Mountain, a sixth performance has been added to the schedule for Aug. 24. For more information, call Santa Fe Opera box office 505.986.5900, or click www.santafeopera.org.
Emily Fons (Ruby Thewes) in Cold Mountain. Photo © Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2015