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Cold Mountain — Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music

cold mountain -- interiorA chilling first scene sets the tone and context for Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer’s gorgeous and moving opera, “Cold Mountain,” an epic piece given a vibrant, unstintingly dramatic production by Leonard Foglia for Opera Philadelphia.

Rather than open with a montage that shows the sweep of the libretto, or focus on one of the main characters — Inman, a soldier in the Confederate army during the Civil War, or Ada, a recently orphaned young woman who is struggling to keep her North Carolina farm solvent following the death of her father — “Cold Mountain” introduces us to the tawdry meanness of partisanship and war by showing us the people who enforce it, perpetuate it, and thrive by it.

Even before the house lights go down signaling the beginning of “Cold Mountain,” two men, one young, one older, are seen stage right digging a ditch. These are not soldiers creating defensive trenches. They are farmers, like Ada, attempting to scratch out a living in the midst of depletion and hardship. The boy is young and strong. He is needed by the gray army that is down to conscripting children and would be eager to have a strapping youth on the verge of manhood among their ranks. The boy has been hiding from such a fate, his father protecting him. Authority has a knack for encroaching, not to mention informants and toadies to help it do nefarious work. That authority rears its head as the first strains of Higdon’s lush, surprisingly melodic score are heard, and a tenor sings a folk song of sorts off-stage left.

The song is comforting and disconcerting at once. The comfort comes from two sources. The song is pretty and full of imagery — peaches in the summer, a gold banjo string that recalls unfulfilled love — that harkens of folk music and seems fitting for 1864. More encouraging, the imagery is apt and truly poetic. It tells a story and expresses a mood while avoiding the nonsensical words-for-words-sake drivel that plagues the text of so many contemporary operas and musicals. Scheer has given us lyrical quality from “Cold Mountain’s” first utterance. We know the opera will be thoughtful and intelligently hewn. It settles us within 10 seconds into wanting to see and hear more.

The dismay comes from seeing the boy flee and the father try to hide in the unfinished ditch. That tells us instinctively the visitor singing about peaches, banjo strings, and a girl, is dangerous and means no good. His gentle song is ironic, and that efforts to thwart him will be to no avail. We are about to meet the villain of “Cold Mountain.”

He comes as the leader of the Home Guard, a local militia that serves as military bounty hunters, ferreting out deserters, stragglers, and non-recruits and taking them to the war they have escaped or rejected. The Home Guard is not interested in excuses. Officially, though Charles Frazier’s book and Scheer’s libretto say differently, it represents the moral high ground and the righteous thinking of the time. No pity or mercy will be shown those who flout the status quo and refuse to fight. The Home Guard will prevail, and the disillusioned and unwilling will serve the Confederate cause.

This scene, featuring Jay Hunter Morris as the local enforcer, Teague, establishes “Cold Mountain’s” attitude towards the war, the people who leave it, and the people who wage it, and colors ours. “Cold Mountain” will be decidedly anti-war and dwell on the destruction it causes and the lack of humanity it engenders. Higdon, through deep-pitched strings, will emphasize the ominousness or beauty of a situation. Scheer will not fail us. His libretto will stay true to its mark, true of his and Higdon’s theme, and true to a engrossing story from Teague’s first word until the end of the opera, which is beautiful, touching, thought-provoking, and gripping. “Cold Mountain” is a story with a purpose, and Scheer will drive its intentions home while giving us absorbing scenes and characters to watch.

Teague not only enforces Confederate will. He serves as a constable in his North Carolina county. He not only takes the male children of the region and makes them soldiers, but he duns debtors and teasingly threatens to take their land or more.

One of these debtors is Ada Monroe who, raised to be a lady in Raleigh, is unsuited as a manager or field hand to the labor-intensive, plan-requiring farm work needed for her sustenance on rural but agriculturally challenging Cold Mountain.

Ada is the unattainable woman Teague’s repeatedly-sung folk tune suggests. She does not succumb to his advances, and he taunts her all the more and threatens her more severely because of her reluctance to consider him as a partner and lover.

Ada has a romance of her own. It’s a man she met at the church where her father was pastor in 1861, just before the conflict between the American states began. The man and she exchanged few words and had only a handful of encounters, but they realized their compatibility and attraction and made a fleeting, but hopeful, pledge they may reunite after the war, continue their romance, and perhaps wed.

The man is W.P. Inman, and when he see him first, he is a patient in a Confederate military hospital recovering from a wounds in his neck and his leg. He has both a bandage around his throat and a crutch.

Inman thinks of and longs for Ada even more than she kindles the memory of him. After three years of war, and injuries that came inches from ending his life or crippling him, Inman has had enough of fighting. His plan, if he is not discharged, an unlikely event given the increasing attrition in the Confederate army, is to desert. He would rather be hunted and on his guard than participate one more day in a war that seems lost and has no personal meaning for him. Once he is able to walk better, he will sneak from the hospital and head for Ada on Cold Mountain. If he can’t manage that, he prefers to be captured by Yankees and taken to prison in the North until the war ends.

You see all that Frazier has provided Higdon and Scheer in terms of content. There’s a mutual romance, set at a distance, with two yearning people unsure whether the other is alive let alone whether they will find each other and marry. Ada’s strongest tie to Cold Mountain may be it being the place Inman will come to search for her. Ada reasons one of the pair must stay still while the other is on the move. If she also wanders, she and Inman may be separated forever. Inman only chooses to risk staying in North Carolina because Ada is there.

There’s undeniable and palpable threat to both protagonists. Ada is constantly under siege by Teague who alternatively woos her and vows to commandeer her land and probably take it for himself. Inman is in a combat situation. The Southern army seeks him as a deserter, and he can be killed at will if captured. The Northern army would see him as a rebel, the enemy, who must be exterminated for the Union’s protection. He may not have time to persuade them to take him as a prisoner. Besides his military adversaries, Inman has to beware informants and others who may profit from his precarious situation. We have two characters to care about and root for to prevail over the obstacles and perils that confront them.

War, besides affecting Ada and Inman, is taking its toll of many in North Carolina. As Inman makes his way across the ravaged state, he meets people who are impoverished and at their wit’s end as they cope with losing loved ones, having to take care of children and property alone in a society where a woman is expected to depend on a husband, and ready like Teague to earn accolades and cash by turning in a deserter. Troops from the South or North provide an eqaul threat to civilians. They will kill for what they want.

Inman is journeying in a world in which he has no one to trust, and no one trusts him. The war has left many to fend for themselves or die as cruelly as the battlefield soldiers. Inman can’t go anywhere without someone pointing a gun at him or wanting to him with chains. The war is not just between the North and South. It’s personal. Everyone has a stake in it or something to fear from it, including a runaway slave Inman helps and then has to fear because of her ferocious, and justified, wariness of anyone who might think it fit she be a slave again.

The confluence of plot and theme is seamless. Higdon, Scheer, and Foglia, the production’s director, have excitingly combined the bounty Frazier gives them. Scheer, aided by Foglia, keeps matters suspenseful. Even if you know the outcome of “Cold Mountain,” you are concerned with Inman, Ada, and their individual and mutual fates. Drama is inherent in every scene. Scheer, Foglia, and their actors make you care and make you want favorable outcomes even when none are in sight.

Higdon’s music constantly expresses the mood of a situation. She keeps her vocal line clean and direct. Rarely does anyone burst into song or have what might be considered an aria, but the conversational gradations in the sung material accentuate the importance of each line and makes both its intention and context clear. Higdon has found the right note or any sentiment, threat, or routine statement. Her vocal section is always musical, subtly yet powerfully so. Throughout, “Cold Mountain” registers as immediate and tonally precise.

Higdon’s general score is evocative, eloquent, and elegant. The composer meticulously provides the right mood or strain using strong bass chords, produced mainly with sumptuous strings, to give profound musical texture to the action on stage and Scheer’s flawless dialogue. Higdon’s score is an accurate emotional guide to all that occurs in “Cold Mountain.” Her music is sensitive to situations and creates the appropriate tonal commentary and tension to enhance scenes and make their purpose richer and more pointed. What sounds simple and elemental provides great depth as it perfectly denotes a conflict, a dilemma, or rare moment of peace. Higdon’s score is confident and bold in its sonority. It’s also cannily informative. You always know the writers’ attitude towards a character or situation and hear in Higdon’s music an understanding of the big subjects “Cold Mountain” broaches.

Frazier has written a strong, involved story, and Gene Scheer has translated it beautifully for the musical theater stage. You are always engaged in what is happening. Foglia never leaves a lull, so there’s always something to note, something that adds to the story and gives it more texture and intensity.

This is an opera in which acting and movement is as important as singing. Like the more musically traditional “Show Boat,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “Candide,” Higdon and Scheer’s “Cold Mountain” rates an equal place in opera houses and Broadway theaters. It has the adventure and excitement to engage a general audience while having the artistry and intricacy to satisfy more sophisticated, scrutinizing appetites.

Like Higdon’s music, Scheer’s libretto is marvelous in how deceptively basic and straightforward it seems while it actually expresses a wide variety of thoughts, concepts, and exposition in a masterfully composed text that has characters communicating naturally while allowing for flights of imagery and poetry. Scheer knows when to be succinct or reveal a character’s inarticulateness and when to let someone loose to tell you more of their thoughts or their plights.

“Cold Mountain” is affecting and entertaining while being classical. Though new, It plays like a time-honored piece in opera’s repertory and, with luck, will find its way to that status.

Leonard Foglia is a great contributor to “Cold Mountain’s” theatrical success. Once again, he has to make the complicated look simple and the multiple themes compact and accessible.

cold  mountain -- interior 2Foglia accomplishes this with admirable skill. There is always something to see in “Cold Mountain.” It is never static and never drags. If Inman, Ada, or the third major character, Ruby Thewes, a fierce survivor who preserves Ada’s holding and wins her friendship, are preoccupied, Teague is up to something in a corner, a minor character is plotting against Inman, or a featured character addresses the vestiges of war and how, disastrously, they have affected his or her life. “Cold Mountain” has several crucial supporting roles, mostly because of Inman’s journey. Foglia gives each its due and is rewarded with some marvelous performances by an outstanding troupe. Rachel Sterrenberg, as a young widowed mother with an infant to tend, and Anthony Michaels-Moore, as an addled young man whose innocence and mental challenges doom him, are particularly affecting.

The leads, and particularly Jarrett Ott as W.P. Inman, are extraordinary. They humanize Scheer’s libretto and provide dimensional people who rate your interest, sympathy, and empathy. Unlike opera singers of the past, Foglia’s cast is equally proficient in acting and singing, and all move well in a physical show that involves everything from climbing over rough terrain to dancing. With the help of lighting designer, Brian Nason, Foglia is able to isolate sections of Richard Brill’s nimbly versatile set to create some unexpected settings, such as a church and the ballroom in which Inman and Ada have the chat that secures their relationship.

Jarrett Ott more than meets the myriad challenges of playing Inman. Though involved in “Cold Mountain” since its early workshop phase, Ott was not aware he’s playing this complex lead for Opera Philadelphia until a week before he went on in the role. Nathan Gunn, for whom Higdon designed the part of Inman and who played Inman in Santa Fe last fall, had to leave the production to cope with a “serious family crisis.” Ott stepped in and immediately established himself as a man with a future. His work in “Cold Mountain” is impeccable. Vocally and dramatically, he found every nuance in Inman’s character and played him naturally and with great presence that made you sincerely care about Inman and his fate throughout the production.

Ott combined perseverance and sincerity with vulnerability to make Inman heroic and likeable. His Inman is a man of obvious honor. He may deserting his country and their cause, but he is doing so with good reason and with the sense that fighting for the South would waste his life while being done with battle and heading home to Ada would lighten and enhance it.

As lithe as he is handsome, Ott negotiate Richard Brill’s perilous set with the physical ease you’d expect from a heroic lead like Inman.

Brill’s set is of broad-hewed timber painted black and ragged on some edges, There boards serve convincing as trees and brush and rough paths Inman must deal with as he walks through North Carolina from the hospital at which he was recuperating to Ada on Cold Mountain. They also rise, fall, and thrust forward as needed, so boards that served as a sturdy, camouflaging stand of trees in one scene can be a battlefield or a raft the next.

Ott’s Inman makes his trek over land and water. The actors shows the character’s fortitude and competence while also conveying how hard he must work at times to keep his march forward towards Ada.

As Ada, Isabel Leonard evolves with the character. She developed more grit along the way, and as she does, her voice seems to have more character than it did in early scenes. Leonard naturally has some of the more lyrically and tunefully presented dialogue, and the purity with which she sings them endows Ada with the same kind of spotless gentility and honest spirit.

You can see Ada’s evolution in her dealings with Teague. In their first scenes, she shows her fear and uses hauteur to put the would-be forecloser in his play. In later sequences, her Ada shows an inner strength and employs “I-don’t-have-time-for-this” indignation as she shoos Teague from her property and tells him to stay off.

Both Ott and Leonard convince you they are romantics who long for each other from their separate outposts. While Ada sometimes talks of Inman as someone she knows casually and wonders out loud if there is any real love or attraction in their relationship. Then there are the times she longs for him and believes only he could understand her feelings and what she has to say about them. Leonard handles such moodiness well. She gives you the constant sense there’s more to Ada that meets the eye.

Cecelia Hall’s Ruby is exactly the opposite. She is plain-speaking and has no time or patience for being anything but what you see.

Ruby can come off as truculent and mannish. To Hall’s credit, she plays the feistiness and blunt nature of the character while maintaining her femininity. This Ruby is all about survival and practicality. She has had to forage for food and shelter her entire life, and she is not about to go soft or act helpless now that she is a grown woman who has developed knowledge and skills along her way.

Ruby is adept at everything Ada fears who is, without prompting, too genteel to touch. She sees the potential in Ada’s from and sets to work to put her vision into practice.

Ruby doesn’t let Ada slack off, and she never dissembles. If she thinks someone is a slimy, cowardly pole cat, she’ll tell him so.

Hall seems to enjoy playing Ruby’s frank side. Her acting is as straightforward as the character’s uncensored expression of her thoughts and emotions. Hard and weathered as Ruby is, she also has a sentimental side. Though she will denigrates and says how much she despises her father, she comes to his rescue when he needs it. In Ruby’s fashion, Hall makes the filial duty seem begrudging. But some warmth seeps through. Ruby can be tough, but she spent even her childhood making do with what she could find, grow, or cadge for her sustenance, and she has a soft spot for people who are in a similar plight. She may make someone work for his supper, and insult them while they eat it, but she won’t let anyone go hungry.

Jay Hunter Morris finds the rogue in Teague, a man who likes his official authority to disrupt, if not ruin, people’s lives and goes about his business with a smug smirk and an self-satisfied glint in his eye. Teague is so benighted, she thinks of threats to claim Ada’s in foreclosure as a kind of flirtation and is particularly miffed when she resists such smarmy overtures.

Morris taps into Teague’s sadism when he goes after the hiding conscript in Scene One and shows unbridled evil when he menaces Ruby’s father, Stobrod Thewes, and some of his companions he finds on his list of deserters.

While Ada and Ruby cope with Teague at home is constantly threatened and open to betrayal from a legion of people he meets on the road. Even those who offers him help freely are suspicious and make him explain who he is and that he means no harm at gunpoint.

Foglia’s cast is uniformly excellent in these small parts. Rachel Sterrenberg is quite moving as a widow who, like Ada, has learned to be tough. This is a woman who has prepared for her survival, and her baby’s, as best she could and is nervous about a man lurking around, possibly thinking of taking all she’s hoarded away. In a tender moment, she lets down the guard and makes Inman an offer that is charitable to both of them. This scene includes a Yankee patrol that looks to do the damage the widow fears. Alasdair Kent has a poignant moment as the youngest of the Union soldiers. Kent is also good is a scene in which he has used his wife to lure Inman to capture by the Home Guard.

Anthony Michaels-Moore is another who has several roles, but he stands out as Pangle, a mentally deficient man who stays with Ruby’s father. While Pangle’s slowness can be annoying, Michaels-Moore makes you care about him.

Kevin Burdette is strong as Ruby’s father, an unreformed cantankerous rogue who drank up the money it would take to feed and clothe his child. Stobrod, for all of his sins, has a good streak. Burdette conveys that, giving the impression that though Stobrod is an admitted scoundrel, there’s some humanity in him that makes him welcome even where he shouldn’t be. Burdette also mimes playing the fiddle well.

Marietta Simpson gives a strong performance as Lucinda, a runaway slave Inman helps to stay free but who won’t return the favor because she hates all whites so much, she can’t relent and assist someone who has shown unrequired friendliness towards her.

Roy Hage continues a string of fine performances as a Georgia deserter that become useful on Ada’s farm. Heather Stebbins lightens the plot as a woman who leads Inman on, to his eventual regret. Paul Groves and Marcus DeLoach perform well as key figures in Inman’s escape. Andrew Farkas gives you apprehension as a juvenile member of the Home Guard. Francesca Luzi is darling as the young girl who learns the significance of the constellation Orion to her family, Orion being the stars Inman and Ada both noted during their separation.

David C. Woodard did a fine job with array costumes, including a handsome emerald green ball gown for Ada. Corrado Rovaris and the Opera Philadelphia orchestra were as meticulous as ever. Cheers particularly to the string section that brought lyricism and color to Jennifer Higdon’s score.

“Cold Mountain,” produced by Opera Philadelphia, runs through Sunday, February 14, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Remaining performances are 7:3o p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $170 to $18 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1018 or by visiting www.operaphila.org.

 

 

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