SANTA FE, N.M. — The odyssey of the battle-scarred warrior making his precarious way back to a lover waiting at home is the oldest story in Western literature — the stuff of epic poems, plays, novels, movies and many operas. So it is a delight to report that the newest manifestation of this oft-told tale — the opera version of the best-selling novel “Cold Mountain,” just given its world premiere in Santa Fe — captures all of its adventure, romance and pathos in a fresh, vibrant musical idiom.
In “Cold Mountain,” composer Jennifer Higdon — one of the most popular figures in contemporary classical music — and her librettist, Gene Scheer, have embraced the saga of W. R. Inman, a Confederate deserter in the last months of the Civil War trekking across the Blue Ridge to reach Cold Mountain, N.C., and the arms of the long-suffering Ada Monroe. With the power of music and the impact of a stunning set, the new opera makes the story more compact and more compelling than the prize-winning 1997 novel by Charles Frazier or the 2003 Nicole Kidman/Renée Zellweger movie adaptation.
Higdon joked that she had to compress the sprawling novel to turn it into a two-act opera. “If I had put the whole book in there, I would have had a Ring Cycle,” she said.
The Santa Fe Opera has given this production a world-class cast, with Nathan Gunn, the reigning baritone of the moment, singing Inman with a clarity that elucidates every poetic turn of Scheer’s libretto. The mezzo Isabel Leonard vividly projected the heartbreaking war-weariness of a shattered Confederacy, and mezzo Emily Fons was just right for the no-nonsense role of Ruby, the woman who teaches Ada the art of survival.
Tenor Jay Hunter Morris sang the role of the villain Teague, the cruel deserter-hunter who lusts for Ada, with such dastardly glee that the audience gave him a good-natured round of “boos” at the curtain call.
A story that ranges from the battlefield to the bedroom, from deep forests to raging rivers, is brilliantly played out on a single unchanging set. Robert Brill has designed a chaotic array of burnt and twisted timbers that evokes a nation in ruin at the end of a long, lethal war. With ingenious lighting by Brian Nason, the same set can be a war zone at one side and a front porch at the other.
At one point, we can see a yearning Inman beside a campfire singing — “What are you doin’, Ada Monroe? Are you sketchin’ lilacs?” — while across the stage we can see what Ada is actually doing — scratching around in a turkey’s nest hoping to find an egg to fill her empty stomach.
This is the first opera by Higdon, 52, who is best known for modern but accessible orchestral works. Her Violin Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, and her delightful Percussion Concerto has rapidly entered the repertoire of symphony orchestras around the world.
In “Cold Mountain,” the music for orchestra and the choruses is significantly more impressive than the writing for individual voices. The otherwise enthusiastic Santa Fe audience greeted the solo arias and duets with tepid applause at best.
This difference was most apparent near the end of the opera, when Inman finally battles his way to Cold Mountain and finds his beloved waiting for him. The much-anticipated reunion duet is brief, flat and disappointing. But it is followed immediately by a fabulously operatic moment for the chorus.
Ada asks Inman to “tell me everything.” As he does, everyone — friend and foe — he has encountered on his long, difficult trip home floods onto the stage for a mighty chorus reprising all the memorable episodes of his odyssey. It is unexpected and beautiful; it is why people fall in love with grand opera.
This new composition by Higdon is further proof that we are living in a Golden Age of American opera. Works by the aging titans John Adams and Phillip Glass are performed regularly all over the world. Meanwhile, a cohort of younger American composers is turning out successful operas on thoroughly American themes, such as Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” and now Higdon’s “ Cold Mountain.” “The Scarlet Letter” by Lori Laitman will make its world premiere next year; Mason Bates’s opera on the life of Steve Jobs is scheduled for 2017.
“Cold Mountain,” the opera, has enjoyed enviable success. Santa Fe had to add a performance to meet ticket demand. The performances here are being recorded for a commercial LP, the first time that’s happened for a new opera at Santa Fe since 1996.
The opera will make its way across the country over the next two years, with performances scheduled for Philadelphia in February, Minnesota, and, of course, North Carolina. Somebody at the Washington Opera had better start thinking about staging this moving new interpretation of literature’s oldest story.
Correction: In a previous version of this story Lori Laitman’s name was spelled incorrectly.
T.R. Reid is a freelance writer.