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Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
Cold Mountain - opera in two acts and an epilogue (2015)
Nathan Gunn (baritone) - Inman; Isabel Leonard (soprano) - Ada; Emily Fons (mezzo) - Ruby; Jay Hunter Morris (tenor) - Teague; Roger Honeywell (tenor) - Veasey; Kevin Burdette (baritone) - Stobrod; Anthony Michaels-Moore (baritone) - Monroe; Deborah Nansteel (mezzo) - Lucinda; Robert Pomakov.(baritone) - Owens
Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program for Singers
Santa Fe Opera Orchestra/Miguel Harth- Bedoya
rec. live, The Santa Fe Opera, August 2015, from premiere season
PENTATONE PTC5186583 SACD [73:10 + 72:30]

I first became aware of the music of the American composer, Jennifer Higdon, about six or seven years ago. Since then I have invested in a number of very fine and rewarding recordings of her music, try her City Scape (Telarc CD80620), her string quartet An Exaltation of Larks (Bridge 9379), or her Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto (DG 4778777). Each of these makes an ideal introduction to this new and confident voice in American music.

There are many other fine pieces available but this is my first experience of her writing for the voice. Indeed this is her first attempt at an opera and again it is a most rewarding work. It is a dark and dramatic tale based upon Charles Frazier’s novel of love and loss during the American Civil War, with Higdon concentrating on the dramatic integrity of the text. The first act opens not with the orchestra but with dialogue between Teague, who is looking for deserters and Owens, whose farm he is camped on. This sets the scene for the whole of the opera. The first act especially is driven by the text, the sung line taking precedence over that of the orchestra, which at times seems a little sparse. This works well as this is a drama and one which is related well here. As the second act progresses there is no letting up of the drama, although the orchestra takes a stronger role in the proceedings. The drama of the text remains what is important. Jennifer Higdon has certainly chosen a tough subject for her first opera, one which holds tight onto the American psyche, but she achieves something which neither glorifies nor denigrates the memory of what for many is the nation’s darkest moment.

The cast is well balanced. Nathan Gunn as Inman and Isabel Leonard as his love Ada are all but ideal. Indeed it is a strong cast throughout with well figured performances from Emily Fons as Ruby and John Hunter Morris as Teague. I particularly liked Deborah Nansteel’s portrayal of Lucinda. The orchestra play well. They offer the right sense of restraint and support in the first act and great control in the second.

The booklet is excellent. It has contributions from the author, composer and librettist, as well as a synopsis and full text. The sound is good. Yes, this is a live performance, and you get the associated sounds that this entails, but I found that they did not detract from the action of the opera, with the drama of the piece shining through. This is a work which marks Jennifer Higdon out as an opera composer of some note, one who is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects. On the evidence of her first opera it will not be long before she receives another commission.

Stuart Sillitoe

 

 



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