Operatoonity.com review: presented by Opera Philadelphia (the sixth opera in their American Repertoire Program)
Live performance: Sunday, February 14, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: Jennifer Higdon
Libretto: Gene Scheer
5.0 out of 5.0 stars
I am the luckiest reviewer in the world. I was privileged to experience an incredibly beautiful and poignant production of COLD MOUNTAIN, a new contemporary opera presented by Opera Philadelphia this past Valentine’s Day. How fitting. I left my heart in the Academy of Music that afternoon with tears staining my cheeks and my unabashed affection for this Pennsylvania company filling me with pride on my ride home to Lancaster.
Wait a minute. Aren’t critics supposed to criticize? The more critical it is, the better the review, right? My mission with Opera Philadelphia is different from many reviewers’, as I see it. It’s not to show how learned and accomplished I am. It’s not to display my facility with language. My task here is to use this digital bully pulpit to share with the world, and I do mean the world thanks to the Internet, the extraordinary arts opportunities Opera Philadelphia is bringing to the East Coast of the United States.
Full disclosure: I adore Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program. I’ve seen every production since they launched this initiative in 2011, beginning with DARK SISTERS, simply an excellent chamber opera. The American Repertoire Program points to the future of opera in America–contemporary, original operas not simply silly regietheater representations of classic operas that some companies trot out for audiences.
COLD MOUNTAIN was spectacular. And my expectations were sky-high. Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain is my favorite contemporary book. I snuffled and wept through an entire box of tissues devouring it. When Opera Philadelphia announced this production, I almost couldn’t wait for February. And who among us looks forward to February? Opera Phila offered a singularly rewarding opera experience. So good that I had to find new five-star art to post for this show.
The stage was set was fully visible upon entering the theatre–ramshackle boards in such disarray I immediately conjured media images of the World Trade Center after 9-11. Foreboding, devastation, and senseless loss crept into this viewer’s soul before the orchestra has struck a single note of Jennifer Higdon’s extraordinary work.
Higdon tackled a novel of depth and scope and successfully translated it into a contemporary opera. I was fortunate to receive a copy of the education program that Opera Phila shares with school students and reading it brought Higdon’s score alive anew. I was reminded of all the distinctive elements in her score to evoke time and place–fiddle music, knee-slapping percussionists, the sounds of twinkling stars made with knitting needles, and strains of mountain music throughout. The opera opens with the sinister leader of the Home Guard singing a folk tune from the era, and the effect was chilling.
Because I am such a fan of the novel, high expectations loomed for Gene Scheer’s libretto, too. The language Scheer put to the aria Metal Age will rip out your spleen:
“Thousands and thousands in bright blue, shiny, factory made uniforms. We shot them and loaded. Shot them and loaded. For five hours, thousands and thousands of men…and there in the middle of it, a drummer boy crying, bleeding, dying…He shot me in the neck. The metal age has come.”
–Inman’s aria “The Metal Age.”
If you don’t know the story, it’s nearly a contemporary telling of Homer’s Odyssey with a little Les Miserables thrown in for more an extra heaping helping of pathos. W.P. Inman (Odysseus) is a Civil War deserter struggling to return home to Cold Mountain see Ada Monroe (Penelope), the remembrance of whom is the only thing keeping him alive despite severe privation and dogged persecution by Teague (Javert), the leader of the crew hunting down deserters like stray dogs.
As Inman, baritone Jarrett Ott, who stepped in for Nathan Gunn, effected the most thoroughly broken man without the affect of melodrama. Since I admit to having fangirled Gunn in previous reviews, I thought I’d be disappointed with Ott, but was very happily surprised with his interpretation. He fully inhabited Inman’s character while singing the role with power and polish.
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was luminous as Ada. She is the consummate performer–a star in every aspect. Beautiful to hear and see, she made her Opera Phila debut in this show. I predict Philadelphia was treated to a performance of one whose star will quickly rise even higher very soon. Brava, Miss Leonard. You were grace, elegance, talent, and depth personified in this production. Would she have shone so brightly opposite Gunn? One hardly cared after a point.
Ruby Thewes, Ada’s friend and partner, is a delicious role in the novel but a difficult one to score and to sing. Ruby is as down-home and prickly as Ada is refined and noble. Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall did a serviceable job in the role. Ruby’s character can be likened to nails scraping a chalkboard. While grit makes for an interesting spoken role, it can be overwhelming for a performer to convey in song and for the audience to hear. By necessity, Ruby lost some of pluck going from the page to a musical score, which is the show’s only real shortcoming.
Tenor Jay Hunter Morris’ star power crackled as the evil leader of the Home Guard Teague, the Javert-inspired character. Yes, in this opera, the tenor is the bad guy, and the the baritone gets the girl. Hunter Morris was so masterfully evil, so convincing as the consummate Confederate baddie that he was soundly booed at curtain call. I smiled inwardly remembering this “baddie”performing a darling lullaby in cabaret at the Glimmerglass Festival’s Gentleman’s Night Out only a summer ago, accompanying himself on his guitar. He was the picture of haunting perfection in this production.
I am such a fan of bass Kevin Burdette, who is a chameleon of a performer and an extraordinary opera singer (and I don’t really like basses–truth be told.) I have seen him be hilarious and also gut-wrenchingly despicable, depending on the role. I wanted his part to be larger as Ruby’s father Stobrod. But the opera is the proper length at two and a half hours with one intermission, so that is merely self-indulgent desire on my part.
This tale of Inman–a quiet, private hero who has witnessed a depth of brutality no decent person should ever experience, who is redeemed only by Ada’s love–was a heroic effort for which all involved deserve highest praise. The orchestra under Corrado Rovaris, the sweeping direction of Leonard Foglia, the ingenious completely functional dysfunctional set design by Robert Brill, lighting design by Brian Nason, and, of course, all the talented performers in the Opera Philadelphia Chorus turning in stunning cameos also made this production the shimmering, albeit soul-scorching, production it was.
I am deeply grateful for your artistic endeavors, Opera Philadelphia. I tried to choke back my tears during curtain call but they would not stop. The City of Brotherly Love has a treasure in this company.
A special Operatoonity.com shout-out to my press contact Frank Luzi, always a pleasure to work with, whose children were darling in the show.