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Thread: Cold Mountain at North Carolina Opera

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Cold Mountain at North Carolina Opera

    Cold Mountain
    , opera in two acts, sung in English
    Music by Jennifer Higdon
    Libretto by Gene Scheer, based on Charles Frazier's 1997 novel of the same name
    Premiered at Santa Fe Opera on August 1st, 2015

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Memorial Hall, September 28, 2017. A second performance will happen on Sunday October 1st at 2 PM - Tickets at

    Co-Production by The Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Minnesota Opera in collaboration with North Carolina Opera

    The North Carolina Opera Orchestra and Chorus
    Conducted by Christopher Alan; Chorus Master Scott McCleod
    Production by Leonard Foglia
    Directed by Keturah Sticknan

    Lighting Designer Brian Nason
    Costume Designer David C. Woolard
    Set Designer Robert Brill
    Projection Designer Elaine McCarthy
    Wig and Makeup Designer Martha Ruskai


    Principal singers

    Ada - Melinda Whittington
    Inman - Edward Parks
    Teague - Opera Lively interviewee Jay Hunter Morris
    Ruby - Emily Fons


    Rev. Veasey - Roger Honeywell
    Blind man/Strobod - Kristopher Irmiter
    Sara/Katie Andrea Edith Moore
    Lucinda - Deborah Nansteel

    Small roles and silent roles

    Owens/Ethan/Chaing Gang Guard - Adrian Smith
    Monroe/Pangle/Chaing Gang Guard - Scott McCleod
    Lila - Megan Cleaveland
    Olivia - Erica Jackson
    Claire - Kate Farrar
    Junior/Charlie - Jacob Kato
    Reid/Chain Gang Guard - John Cashwell
    Thomas - Mason Cordell
    Owen's son - Jordan Clifton
    Laura - Florence Smith
    Birch - Gabe Higgenbotham
    Three small children - Sam Clayton, Weston Hall, Margot Perkinson
    Grace - Julia Clayton
    Five Chain Gang Members/Teague's Home Guard/Snipers - Jim Azarelo, Jason Bailey, Dustin Britt, Cody Clark, Joey Infinito


    Cold Mountain is the first full-length opera with the action in the libretto happening entirely in North Carolina. The novel's author is an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is therefore appropriate that North Carolina Opera participated in this co-production and is now bringing the work to the very heart of Chapel Hill, to the beautiful Memorial Hall.

    The novel won the National Book Award, and the opera won the International Opera Awards in London for best world premiere. Jennifer Higdon is a Pultizer Prize-winning composer. This is her first opera.

    The production is the original one presented in Santa Fe, with the same set design, projections, and lighting. There is only one set for all scenes; some nuances are added by simple projections mimicking snow, water, and stars. Different areas of the stage are used for the various locations, with the name of the location projected on the set (Raleigh, Black Cover Farm, Cape Fear River, etc.); flashback scenes get the year in question also projected on the set.

    The sets, Opera Lively picture

    The set reproduces ruins with wooden beams and planks likely trying to render the destruction caused by the Civil War. One of the diagonal beams doubles as a platform that people can climb for the scenes where they are supposed to be up in the mountains. Frankly I was the whole time afraid that an artist would trip on one of the wooden planks on the ground and suffer a stage accident. For an opera that lasts two hours and twenty minutes, I experienced visual fatigue with the never-changing set, although there was some creative use of the space. Still, the variety felt insufficient to render the various short scenes (there are dozens of them), and while the projections helped a little, they could have helped a lot more if for example a screen had been placed on the background for some visual aids for snow and mountain scenes, similar to what Opera Carolina did in their production of La Fanciulla del West. The way it was done, it seems like we got Cold Mountain without the mountain, and it all felt a bit repetitious and claustrophobic. The one exception was the scene in the Cape Fear River, which was very nicely evocative. I'd give to this set a score of B.

    Lighting on the other hand was very good. A+. Costumes were appropriate to the action and the period, but with nothing very notable. B+.

    So, the physical production was ultimately serviceable but not breathtaking: a B+, overall.

    Stage direction and acting were very correct, with most artists portraying believable and convincing characters. B+. Fight choreography lacked a bit of realism, though. B-. I'd grant an A- for blocking, which while a bit ponderous and slow, did use efficiently the available dynamic space. These theatrical arts get an overall B+ as well.

    Musically the chorus did a very good job, earning an A+. It is interesting to observe that the most musically beautiful moments in the opera in my opinion were the choral pieces - a short one in the first act, and a longer one in the second act.

    A very beautiful large ensemble scene in the second act, Opera Lively picture

    The orchestra and conducting were technically accurate but the volume was subdued most of the time, accounting for louder sounds from the stage than from the pit, which seemed to settle for background music. I'm not sure if these are the dynamics that Higdon wanted; maybe they were; I never heard this opera before with other orchestras and never saw a copy of the score, but I did have the impression that a bit more volume would have helped. B.

    Singing excelled. The artists who impressed me most were Edward Parks, Jay Hunter Morris, and Emily Fons. All three of these principal singers have beautiful voices timbre-wise, and were secure in their pitch control, exhibiting sufficient colors characterizing nicely the psychological aspects of their roles, respectively romanticism/longing, cruelty/coldness/sarcasm, and pragmatism. I was less impressed with Melinda Whittington, who did nothing wrong but whose timbre agreed less with my ears.

    By the way, click [here] to read some interesting words that Jay Hunter Morris issued about his role, in a recent event at the Triangle Wagner Society.

    Excellent comprimarios were Roger Honeywell, Deborah Nansteel (particularly good), and even though her role was very small, Megan Cleaveland, a young singer I've heard in a few other productions and always impressed me, confirmed tonight the good impression I have of her.

    All things considered, nobody sang poorly. The overall singing score is another A+.

    Curtain calls, Jay in the middle

    So, as far as this performance goes, it was a good and recommended one. Summarizing, physical production B+, theatrical arts B+, chorus A+, orchestra/conducting B, singing A+, results in a global score of about A, very much worth attending on Sunday for those who missed it today.

    Now, what leaves me a bit ambivalent is the piece itself. I liked it, but not entirely. I think that while it is a very decent effort, the fact that it is Ms. Higdon's first opera shows. For example, the pace is slow. While the second act does carry more punch, the buildup to it is sluggish, making of the first act something quite bland. Act two is way superior; and while this is intentional even in the music (she gives less assured singing to Ada in the first act, and more developed one in the second act after she learns more survival skills), one wonders why the gap between the two parts needed to be so pronounced.

    The theatricality of the piece suffers from having too many scenes and too many characters. The libretto is nice enough, with witty moments and poetic ones, but it never seems to really take flight and soar. It's never boring, mind you - my companion and I remained engaged for the full 140 minutes, but it is not very exciting either.

    Ms. Higdon's score is interesting. It is restrained, subtle, and elegant. It is written through, except for a few brief moments of silence. It uses some ingenious devices such as snake-like noises anytime Teague approaches the stage. The vocal writing is pleasant with a predominance of recitativo accompagnato that sounds natural and with good flow. The rare arias and choral pieces are beautiful. The orchestral colors for the more emotional scenes are correct. But that's where one of the problems resides. The score is only correct. It is never sublime or thrilling.

    I'm sure that someone reading this commentary might think that my position of not being blown away by this score (which after all achieved very good reviews elsewhere) has to do with the difficulty that contemporary opera struggles with in order to conquer the goodwill of the public. No, it is not that. I couldn't be a bigger fan of contemporary opera. I've advocated for it many times and in the most energetic terms, and I'm very happy that North Carolina Opera, season after season, reserves a space for the genre. But I didn't come out of the theater with the impression that Cold Mountain is an operatic masterpiece. Several other contemporary operas I've seen in the last couple of years impressed me a lot more than Ms. Higdon's work (I could quote for example Written on Skin, Luce Mie Traditrice, Silent Night - which by the way will be shown in late October in Winston-Salem by Piedmont Opera; see our announcement [here] - L'Amour de Loin, Le Dernier Jour d'Un Condamné...). Still, it does have many merits, but it is irregular. Certain scenes work better than others. This opera doesn't achieve grade A territory for me, in spite of all the accolades that it has gathered. I give it a B+. That's not a demerit - no piece can wildly please everybody. Maybe other patrons and critics liked/will like it more.

    Anyway, a grade A performance of a B+ work is still very recommended, and North Carolina Opera is to be congratulated for putting together an ambitious piece with 28 artists on stage. The company shows a lot of maturity and professionalism, and is able to deliver a very polished product (with very good casting that resulted in superior singing).

    The next productions of this excellent company will be Rigoletto on January 26 and 28, fully staged, and Samson and Delilah on April 29, in concert. Please do continue to support North Carolina Opera.

    Photo credit Eric Waters for North Carolina Opera - Melinda Whittington (Ada) and Edward Parks (Inman) - Use authorized by NC Opera


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    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); September 30th, 2017 at 08:48 PM.
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