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Arts Desk

COLD MOUNTAIN: First Impressions of Jennifer Higdon's Opera

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Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera
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Isabel Leonard sings Ada and Nathan Gunn sings Inman in Jennifer Higdon's 'Cold Mountain' at Santa Fe Opera.

Jennfier Higdon's opera Cold Mountain premiered on August 1st at the Santa Fe Opera to a world that was obviously ready for a masterwork. It was sold out before opening, an extra performance was added, and a major recording company committed to releasing it commercially. The masterwork didn't quite emerge, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns. But many good things did. 

INTRODUCTION: "And now, at the world-premiere performance of Cold Mountain, we're waiting for Jennifer Higdon - (WILD APPLAUSE) - and here she comes...

DPS: Now that is the sound of success. But how often does a great American epic arrive in fully-realized form? Even in the overheard exit chatter among the audience, not everything was what it could've been. 

Anonymous Female Voice: "I think there were..a few problems with the staging." 

DPS: The production of the long-awaited opera based on the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier didn't look like much. It was a confused explosion of beams adapted to the many locales in this Civil War story of a confederate deserter trying to make his way home to the woman he loves. Well, most opera-goers are used to looking past the production while tapping into the power of the music. And there was plenty to tap into. 

The seeds of every character's triumphs and failures were sewn into the DNA of Gene Scheer's beautifully molded libretto. Higdon emerges as a top-flight dramatist. The vocal lines are lyrical, singable and always dedicated to revealing the characters, telling you where these people come from and how they think and feel.

So the basic opera was there - on a level that so many aren't on opening night.

However, Higdon couldn't resist using some of the instrumental effects that have made her symphonic works so piquant, but were less relevant here. And then, of course, the murky, ugly set. Will this change by the time Cold Mountain invades the Academy of Music next year, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia? It has to.