Jennifer Higdon is one of the most performed composers in the US, and Cold Mountain is the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s first operatic sojourn. The composition got off to a rocky start when the original commission from San Francisco Opera failed to eventuate. Happily, Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera rescued the commission of this brilliant new work, with the premiere staged last year in 2015 in Santa Fe. After sell-out performances, the work has since won the 2016 International Opera Award for best world premiere.

The libretto by Gene Scheer is adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name by Charles Frazier, which tells the story of Civil War deserter W.P. Inman and his journey to find his beloved Ada, a once well-off but now desperate woman who learns to fend for herself with the help of Ruby, a mountain woman. The setting for the story had a special significance for Higdon, who grew up on a farm in East Tennessee, only 60 miles from the real Cold Mountain in North Carolina.

Musically, Higdon’s score is fresh and cast in her own personal brand of Neo-Romanticism, while drawing on numerous hallmarks of classical and folk Americana. Throughout the two-act opera are sprinkles of Copland, particularly some jaunty string episodes à la Appalachian Spring, as well as African-American spirituals and folk fiddle tunes. Some brief passages of shimmering, sweeping strings even recall the film scores of Hollywood’s Golden Era. The orchestration is generally quite spare, making for quite an intimate musical experience.  

What Higdon’s score manages to do particularly well is ebb and flow with the drama. The score is almost cinematically conceived – not so much in its sound world, but in the way it mirrors the action onstage. Periods of high drama are echoed in tense, dissonant passages, and when the music relaxes, so too do the events taking place on the stage. The orchestra manages these musical shifts impeccably, under the confident direction of conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

This is a live recording of the 2015 Santa Fe premiere, and perhaps the only downside is the slight balance issues in the recording of the orchestra, which in stronger passages comes off a bit muffled (probably pit issues). This is easily forgiven however, for the opera’s enthralling plot and brilliantly conceived score. The vocal performances are also excellent, particularly those of Nathan Gunn (Inman), Isabel Leonard (Ada) and Emily Fons in her portrayal of the honest, hardworking Ruby, with the most charming Southern drawl.

Jennifer Higdon has ‘scaled’ her first opera – and here’s how
The American composer tells it on the mountain with her gritty, moving and award-winning Civil War-era opera.

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