Jennifer Higdon: Cold Mountainby Miguel Harth Bedoya
Charles Frazier's 1997 Civil War novel Cold Mountain is one of the most acclaimed novels of recent years, and also, with its Odyssey-like plot arc connecting a large variety of episodes, one of the most potentially operatic. The high-powered commissions behind this Santa Fe Opera production are understandable, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon has responded with an operatic treatment that captures the novel's combination of color and dramatic gravity. The key to her language here is her flexible setting of dialogue: this is a story that unfolds mostly in conversations, neatly terse in the hands of librettist Gene Scheer. Her lines at first seem to hover uncertainly between speech and song, but then more shades begin to appear (or perhaps the opera indeed gets stronger as it goes along): the orchestra sketches the characters in deft ways, and the novel's moments of dramatic tension are captured intact. Although she has used bluegrass in her music in the past, Higdon avoids that anachronistic move in favor of evocative quotation of traditional tunes. The characters are allowed to sing in natural (even if not 100 percent authentic Southern accents), and the leads, Nathan Gunn as the Confederate deserter Inman and Isabel Leonard as his self-reliant beloved Ada Monroe, are dramatically convincing. Despite various high-tech interventions, the sound is of the old-fashioned boxy live-opera sort, but the singers' voices are clear, and the libretto included in the CD box may be needed only for intermittent consultation. A worthwhile operatic entry in the long line of American vocal works descending from Aaron Copland's "The Tender Land."
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