Higdon’s Cold Mountain performed by the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Higdon
LABELS: PentaTone
ALBUM TITLE: Higdon
WORKS: Cold Mountain
PERFORMER: Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Emily Fons, Jay Hunter Morris; Santa Fe Opera Orchestra/Miguel Harth-Bedoya
CATALOGUE NO: PTC 5186 583 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain is like a Wild West variation on The Odyssey: Inman, a deserter from the Southern army in the Civil War, makes a difficult and dangerous journey back home; meanwhile, his city-raised sweetheart Ada struggles to keep things going on her late father’s farmstead, with the aid of the practical country girl Ruby; and in the background the Home Guard is on the prowl for deserters.

The sprawling novel needed radical adaptation for Anthony Minghella’s 2003 film, and must have been equally difficult to turn into an opera. Librettist Gene Scheer has done a deft job of compression, reducing action scenes to a necessary minimum and contriving duets for the separated lovers in the form of shared monologues and clearly framed flashbacks. Jennifer Higdon’s tense, swift-moving score is in short, linked scenes, incorporating echoes of country fiddling and singing but avoiding the Western clichés of countless movie scores, and achieving a moving tenderness when the lovers are finally, tragically reunited.

Recorded live during the premiere run last summer at The Santa Fe Opera (there are cramped orchestral and vocal sonorities and often intrusive stage noise), this production has a strong cast headed by the sympathetic Nathan Gunn and winning Isabel Leonard. The handsome booklet, with libretto and production photographs, aids appreciation of this landmark in American opera.

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Anthony Burton