REVIEW: Cold Mountain at Opera Philadelphia

Higdon's complex score and excellent performances from Leonard and Ott were often overpowered by the fragmented production.
Isabel Leonard and Jarrett Ott in "Cold Mountain."

Isabel Leonard and Jarrett Ott in Cold Mountain.

Most of the characters in Jennifer Higdon‘s first opera want to return to the literal Cold Mountain. However, at the end of the nearly three-hour show, which had its East Coast premiere with Opera Philadelphia on Friday evening, you’re left to wonder why. There’s no doubt that this operatic adaptation of the classic novel-turned-film sparks some sparks with a fabulous cast, but the overall pacing of the production makes you feel like you’ve been physically fighting in the drawn-out American Civil War depicted in the opera.

Part of that may very well have to do with the scope of narrative that’s trying to be covered here, told through a series of interconnected scenes and flashbacks. It’s almost too much: Gene Scheer‘s libretto is heavy and often times puts unneeded weight on both the action and the singers. The first act of Cold Mountain suffers tremendously from this, as the one huge stationary set piece (which eerily looks like the barricades from Les Miserables) doesn’t allow for the action to move beyond a small playing area.

Higdon’s score, while complex, layered, and interesting, often fell victim on Friday night to conductor Corrado Rovaris. The orchestra severely overpowered the singers, especially in act one, and there were multiple times when the top-notch performers could hardly be heard over the pit.

That’s a shame because the cast is extraordinary.

The absolutely lovely Isabel Leonard was the most effective of the evening as Ada, and she sounded and looked stunning. In fact, you’d almost mistake her for Scarlett O’Hara in one scene where she wore a emerald green sateen dress and floated majestically across the Academy stage. Ms. Leonard’s full range, both vocally and emotionally, was put to the test throughout the night, and she met the challenge with a relaxed air about her. In short, she’s the real deal and it shows.

The other story that will clearly come out of the production is the eleventh hour casting of Curtis alumni Jarrett Ott as Inman after the previously-announced Nathan Gunn withdrew from the opera due to a family emergency. There’s no doubt Mr. Ott has a star quality about him, and given his last-minute plunge into the role, he gave a very solid performance. You were left wondering if given the proper rehearsal time if Mr. Ott’s characterization of Inman could have been even stronger.

Jay Hunter Morris

Jay Hunter Morris

There were other standouts in the ensemble, including the powerful Jay Hunter Morris, cast in something of the throwaway role of Teague, and Curtis alumni Rachel Sterrenberg‘s depiction of Sara, a poor, desolate mother willing to sacrifice her dignity for the sake of her infant son, was deeply powerful and moving.

And, of course, there was the raucous, but deeply complex, Ruby Thewes, played by mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall. Halfway through act one, she takes a chicken and rips his head off, much to the disgust of Isabel Leonard’s Ada. It was also a moment that woke much of the audience up during the fragmented evening, but it shouldn’t take beheading a fowl — or the production’s multiple gunshot effects — to shake up opera goers. Nevertheless, one has to admire Higdon for her immense talent, and the opera is a prime opportunity for Philadelphians to catch some international vocal excellence on a local stage.

Cold Mountain runs at the Academy of Music now through February 14. For tickets and more information, click here.