Tragedy is more uplifting than comedy, it is said, because tragedy allows us to witness the resiliency of the human spirit: how we are able to adapt, be fed by memory and hope, and grow, even in the face of terrible violence, loss, and death. While uplifting is not a term I’d use to describe Cold Mountain, an opera by Jennifer Higdon to a libretto by Gene Scheer based on the novel by Charles Frazier which premiered last Saturday at the Santa Fe NM Opera (continues the next two-plus weeks; see link at end), it does make a powerful statement about the human spirit and the cost of war. Perhaps at some distance I might come around to find it uplifting, but for now I’ll stick with moving, evocative. And essential: in its insights on a central, grim chapter of US history, and in bringing its story to life through music layered with great depth of meaning, which the entire production also works to bring across.
I had read nearly half of the novel and brought that knowledge of the characters to my experience. And thus I found that having Teague as the villain begin the opera guarantees that it plunges directly into the central conflict of the work—as opposed to the novel, where the details of Inman’s circuitous wanderings unfold slowly. Teague is the leader of the Home Guard, vigilantes who round up Confederate deserters and return them to the battlefield or bring them to (in their view) justice. That this goal has devolved to simple sadism is revealed in the opera’s opening scene.
And that first scene reveals Higdon’s and Scheer’s skills in building momentum. It opens with Teague (tenor Jay Hunter Morris) unaccompanied, singing a flirtatious folk song; then as more characters engage, that spare texture grows quickly, with jagged pulsing music driving the action —and violence—forward.
The protagonist, Inman (charismatic baritone Nathan Gunn), is introduced in a funeral scene in the hospital where he is a patient. The patients sing of their uncertainty, and their anonymity as wounded soldiers (“What was his name? / […] When will this end? / What waits for me now?) Higdon’s vivid and resonant choral writing is filled with the warmth of moving block chords; the two chorus sections (the other is near the end of the work) are a framing element of the work.
Librettist Scheer reveals himself as a superb poet in compacting Charles Fraser’s sprawling epic for the stage; Higdon (herself raised in Tennessee, not far from the actual Cold Mountain) has helped Scheer maintain a resonant Southern flavor to the words. Not a single line falls flat and we hear the sung text clearly except in a few instances of complicated ensembles.
The set was an abstract background of dark jagged boards thrusting forward, with large beams crossing the stage at a slope at the back. The singers climbed these beams creating another level to the stage. There was also a movable central platform that served a multitude of purposes. The frequent set changes are conveyed without scenery. Instead, surtitles, lighting, projections, and some hand-held props indicate the changes in time and place. The scene changes are artfully dovetailed as new action often starts unfolding while the previous scene is still concluding, driving the pacing forward. The innocence of the pre-war scenes, as Inman and Ada (Isabel Leonard) shyly get to know each other, are juxtaposed with the harrowing later ones of Inman’s journey home, and Ada’s struggle to survive on her Cold Mountain farm.
Inman’s experiences in the war have left him emotionally (as well as physically) scarred (“I believe a man’s spirit can be blasted away./ I’m a hut of bones … nothing more”). Recovering from a near-fatal wound in the hospital, he recounts horrific scenes to a blind man. This galvanizing solo builds in momentum, accelerating and then stepping back to reflect with the brittle refrain “the metal age has come.”
Ada’s life on the farm is helped by the scrappy Ruby (Emily Fons, mezzo) who is a rough-hewn contrast from the cultivated Ada. We are introduced to Ruby through bouncy music heightened with woodblocks and other percussion. She enters as a comic diversion but as she and Ada build their reciprocal relationship, layers of human emotions are revealed. Ruby’s initial bounciness never returns, as she and Ada teach each other: Ruby learns to read from Ada, and instructs Ada about all the planning and hard work needed so that the farm can sustain them. And both do soul-searching, as the struggle to survive is both a “how” and a “why.” Ruby tells Ada: “You are here for a reason. And so am I…./I do not intend to let you fail /That’s what I know. That’s my truth.” And in an evocative duet, Ruby teaches Ada to listen to nature : to the sounds of the different trees and birds, with the hush of muted strings and the chirping of woodwinds painting a lush background. The women’s voices interweave with an atmospheric spontaneity.
Higdon is a scene-painter with the vast palette of instruments and voices, and the imagery is always fresh and compelling. The four beautiful washerwomen/sirens who ensnare Inman (and his fellow-traveler Veasy) sing with drippingly sensual, thick harmonies, and when the travelers are drugged so they can be sold for bounty to the Confederate army, glissandi on the strings show us Inman’s dizziness.
Ruby’s father, Stobrod (Kevin Burdette), appears (another deserter) and introduces a sprightly folk flavor with his fiddling and dance movements. Ruby has no sympathy for him, but he tries to persuade her that he has given up his past ways as a drunkard. “Music’s changed me. […] There’s an invisible world, Ruby/ Like a fire behind a wall … Can’t never see it…/But you can feel the heat./… That’s what happened to me.” Many characters reflect on the transformations, the changes they are going through, and the role of an invisible force that guides and shapes us, and its manifestation, whether through music, the eternal beauty of the heavens, or the simple changing of the seasons. And Higdon has music to underscore the human quest to comprehend that force: music that conveys expansive grandeur and the belief in a limitless universe.
Ada, Ruby, Teague, and Stobrod reflect on themes of change and growth in a complex quartet— Stobrod hides from Teague, and Ada and Ruby are worried that he will be found— in which Teague shows his resistance to change. “A Fence is a good thing,” Teague explains, “nutin’s gonna move or change it … Keep those people from up North from comin’ down here/ and tellin’ us how to live our lives.” It adds some dimension to Teague’s role, while at the same time the other three characters consider the possibility and potential of human transformation.
An escaped slave, Lucinda (Deborah Nansteel), represents the hope— and bitterness — of the now-freed slaves. She utters her curse of the white race over an otherworldly rattle from the string section. The clarity of Nansteel’s voice was effective and powerful, and a contrast from the operatic thickness of the voices of Fons and Leonard. Yet Lucinda’s bitterness is overcome by kindness, as she gives Inman the key to free himself (he is chained to a group of deserters, who have all been murdered by their guards). That gesture is one of the many remarkable small symbols of hope that make the opera a celebration of human compassion and resiliency, even in the midst of cruelty and barbarism.
I will avoid giving away further details of the plot, since I assume that this is a work that eventually will be widely seen. The original commission joined together Santa Fe with companies in Philadelphia and Minnesota; now North Carolina Opera is also planning a production. Santa Fe even added an additional performance— unprecedented for a new work— and is planning to release a recording, drawn from live performances, early in 2016. I myself feel privileged to have seen the premiere of a work that will soon be an American classic.
While Santa Fe Opera is a good ways outside of Massachusetts’s Rte. 495, it theoretically could be driven to, and there are tickets still available, especially for the added sixth performance, Aug. 24. Ticket information here.