Cher Public

When this cruel war is over

Jarrett Ott is a star. That is the only surprise takeaway from the well-intended snore, Cold Mountain, which opened Friday for a five-performance run at Opera Philadelphia.  

Pictures show that Mr. Ott is handsome, but they don’t capture his charisma onstage, or the floating beauty of his high baritone, or his ability to be—not just to act but also to live on stage. He is substituting for Nathan Gunn, for whom the opera’s leading role, W.P. Inman, was written and who was called away from this run by a family emergency. Trained at The Curtis Institute where the composer Jennifer Higdon teaches, Mr. Ott had much to do with the development of the work, including singing a number of early readings of the score. That obviously gave him authority in Ms. Higdon’s style and perhaps the stamina for this immense part.

He was able to make every word clear, despite Higdon’s often-clumsy vocal writing, hitting the upper part of the voices hard for quasi-parlando effects. (Isabel Leonard as Ada, the object of Inman’s love, had to struggle in the counterintuitive tessitura of her part, which severely stretched her light mezzo.)

Above all Mr. Ott played the complexity of a recognizable human being, not a “type” as all the other characters were forced to be—he balanced his character’s desperation, toughness, violence with vulnerability and pathos. He embodied the longing of the character for safety, home, and love with heartbreaking sincerity. Whether he has the vocal heft for a huge house such as the Met will remain to be seen, but he gave a stunning performance.

Yet even if everybody else had been on the same level the work would have capsized. Like the ghastly Oscar presented by this ambitious company last season, Cold Mountain suffered from a composer with no previous experience in writing opera. Ms. Higdon, 51, a Pulitzer Prize winner of mostly instrumental music, doesn’t seem to know how to use music as the engine of a dramatic work, singing as a way to create characters, or how to suspend time to allow for eloquent vocal and musical expression of emotion. Her use of parlando became monotonous and colorless and caused the work to seem endless. Although possessed of a melodic gift, she didn’t seem to understand how to use her tunes to build scenes into memorable dramatic experiences.

Her busy orchestration intermittently showed greater mastery than her vocal writing, with some wonderful effects. But still, there was something static about her invention. She used modal scales, invoking and sometimes quoting folk tunes of the time, but harmonized them in conventional, often predictable ways.

Restless modulations, ripe but oddly familiar-sounding developmental procedures, and a reliance on harmonizing with seventh or ninth chords to provide either tension or longing gave the nearly three-hour work a monotony of affect. Even her loveliest inspiration, the late chorus of reminiscence and regret sung by characters, some living and some dead, lost impact because it seemed so much a retread of earlier gestures.

Given her lack of experience, her choice of the epic novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a best-seller about the Civil War and its horrors—it is the worst war America ever fought, with 620,000 men killed—is puzzling. Its story is multi-leveled, full of fascinating and memorable characters, terrifying violence and cruelty. Its hero, Inman, deserts the Confederate Army after four years of witnessing unbearable and pointless cruelty and undertakes an almost impossible, ultimately tragic journey back to his native South Carolina and the woman he loves. (The novel is perhaps most familiar as the basis of the popular 2003 film.)

How can one turn the enormous number of unforgettable characters into a practical cast for an opera, how can one manage the devastating battles, and sickening eruptions of human cruelty on stage? A novelist can use the reader’s imagination to make real and indelible the horrific and the beautiful as war strips away all pretense of “civilized” human behavior, and the camera can bring the wildest and most horrible battles directly into the viewer’s brain and show a character’s soul through his or her eyes.

Distance is built into the theater, “realistic” action needs to be simple to be convincing—nervous choristers and uncertain extras running back and forth through stage smoke won’t do for a battle, any more than life or death combat involving smaller groups of soloists all concerned not to get hurt or hurt someone else cannot easily be rendered terrifying and immediate. And in an opera characters must sing, music equals the close up and the montage or the page of powerful prose.

Opera always involves the suspension of time, as a character muses on his or her fate or sorrow or desires, a chorus cries out in terror or blood lust. But how does one find these music filled pauses and expansions when there is intense pressure to move incessantly forward from one tense situation to the next?

The librettist, Gene Scheer, obviously a smart and able writer (he crafted the libretto for Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick) did what must be done. Everything is compressed into short scenes where saucy and sometimes campy dialogue signposts complex emotions and ambiguous interactions. One scene relentlessly follows another, motivations are announced not dramatized, the reasons characters take risks, trust the wrong people, drop their guard are taken for granted.

There are sudden flashbacks of Inman and his love, Ada, but they are short, inconsequential and occasionally confusing.  Worse, these scenes render the lovers’ final real-world meeting anticlimatic. No wonder Higdon’s setting of this crucial moment feels so offhand.

Finding a way for all of this to have the necessary visceral impact and complexity would have been tough for a veteran theater composer, but it seems it was impossible for Ms. Higdon. She might have had more success attempting a more intimate work with a clearer and simpler emotional arc.

No one was helped by the ham-handed and clumsy production of Leonard Foglia. The set (designed by Robert Brill, lighting was by Brian Nason) was mgade up of planks which had to serve as numerous locations, none of which they resembled. They were noisy and not always stable. There were projections, all obvious. Lighting was dim with sudden shafts of light. Fight scenes failed; the wild shoot-out where Inman takes on the vicious hunter of deserters Teague (Jay Hunter Morris) and his posse performed in almost balletic style was ridiculous. Blocking was often awkward and occasionally unclear.

Opera Philadelphia is a mixture of the highly professional and the provincial. The latter quality extends to the audience who giggled at the odd moment and hissed the villain, the charitable interpretation of which behavior is that the make-believe of the story hadn’t landed.

The company fielded a large mostly impressive cast. Ms. Leonard got some mileage from her personal beauty but her character, Ada, is vaguely realized in the music. Ada is a well-born city girl ruined after her father’s death (he was played with dignity by Anthony Michaels-Moore who was effective in two other roles) escapes to a mountain farm where she is saved by an illiterate country girl, Ruby (Cecilia Hall) who teaches her how to grow food and handle livestock.

Ms. Hall displayed a rich voice and imposing presence. Actually from the South, her presumably idiomatic accent sounded odd juxtaposed with the approximate and peculiar attempts of most of her colleagues. She also wasn’t flattered by the vocal writing and sometimes looked uncomfortable; one had the impression her direction had been “Be butch!” causing her to suppress (not entirely successfully) a natural voluptuousness.

Mr. Hunter Morris was an immensely forceful villain, his strong tenor ringing out to great effect. Another well-known tenor, Paul Groves, played the degenerate preacher, Veasey. In contrast to his pallid Painter in the Met’s recent Lulu, Mr. Groves gave a vivid, strongly sung performance here.

Marietta Simpson was suitably terrifying as a desperate, possibly dangerous runaway slave, and among a number of fine sounding singers, Heather Phillips stood out as one of a trio of deceptive sirens who lure Inman into a trap.

The company’s Music Director Corrado Rovaris had his hands full keeping stage and pit coordinated, and helping his instrumentalists manage some very tricky key changes in Ms. Higdon’s orchestration.

So, why? Why has the sense of how to dramatize a story for the stage become rare? Why do mature composers with no operatic experience or even in many cases much knowledge of the repertory get these commissions when one hears of and sometimes sees new work that actually lands effectively? Is it because grant getting, donor pulling strategies involve the promise to commission “new work”—no matter how inept?

Three recent works offer hope, although they are all on a smaller scale, are shorter and less pretentious. Dog Days, Yardbird (presented by Opera Philadelphia, to be given soon at the Apollo Theater in Manhattan) and Written on Skin are far more powerful works in what seems to me the right direction.

The young and gifted Matthew Aucoin may have had only a modest success with Crossing but he had all the right ideas and is young enough to learn what will and won’t work for him. Nico Muhly is also learning the right way to find what sings in him and get it on the stage, whether or not his work as yet has a completely persuasive impact. And I am sure there are others. But is anyone really interested and if they are, in what numbers?

As for Cold Mountain, those who can make the trip and are possessed of enough patience will find Mr. Ott worth seeing, and—some things probably having settled down from opening night—may find the music more compelling than I did.

Photographs by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

  • Loge

    I saw this in Santa Fe and I agree with this review. Great libretto, great singers, good staging, but the singers don’t really have anything to sing! One thing that bothered this Southerner who is interested in language: the low country Charlestonian Ada sang with the same twangy mountaineer accent as the people around Cold Mountain. Part of the point of her story was that she was different than the people among whom she now lived. Not all Southern accents are the same. This was similar to and as disconcerting to Robert E. Lee sounding like a Texas cowboy (instead of a Tidewater Virginian) in Gettysburg.

    • Loge

      By the way, Cold Mountain is a real place in North Carolina. Near Brevard.

    • dgf

      Mr. Innauarato’s review of “Cold Mountain” is spot on. I was puzzled at how many of the reviews after last summer’s premiere in Santa Fe were as positive as they were, some reviews even calling Higdon’s maiden voyage in opera a masterpiece. I think that there was undoubted pressure on Higdon to produce a winner, as there was a great deal of publicity and hype about the premiere, as well as a lavish amount of money invested in the production. Higdon is a fine composer, and I am a big fan of many of her instrumental compositions. Opera and solo vocal writing does not seem to be her forte, however. Two and a half hours of recitative, sung in a grating southern dialect, becomes mind numbingly monotonous after a short while. The few ensembles and choral numbers were certainly more effective, but were too far and few in between. Some stories do not lend themselves well to operatic treatment, and “Cold Mountain” is such a story, I think. The flashback sequences were disjointed, and as a number of reviews have mentioned, the flashback sequences between Ada and Ott robbed the opera of the necessary tension building towards their eventual reunion. Kudos to Philadelphia for reviving the work so soon, as they did with “Oscar,” which in large part was risible. Perhaps Higdon and her artistic team will rethink, revise and trim some of “Cold Mountain,” in particular, the order of scenes in the second act. Not many composers score a home run on their first operatic attempt, and hopefully Higdon will continue to explore and compose in a variety of samller scale vocal mediums before her next operatic venture.

  • Countervail

    As one unfamiliar with the opera, but having read the book, I don’t understand how they can either make a movie OR an opera from that. So much of the story is told in the minds of the characters, so very little actually happens in the action, that it’s hard to see how that’s realized effectively.

    The movie was spectacularly bad on that part, though I could see the externalization of those thoughts into arias more effectively. Was the opera at least effective on that part?

  • danpatter

    What a great review! I love all the detail and the thoughtful examination of this work. Thanks!

    Now, if there were only a small chance I could actually see this.

  • aulus agerius

    “Her use of parlando became monotonous and colorless and caused the work to seem endless.”

    Minnesota Opera now has on the website several audio clips from their new opera, The Shining, music by Paul Moravec, libretto by Mark Campbell. They seem to be from rehearsal but I fear the worst as per the quote above. Why do they do this?? It’s so booorrring for us to hear people declaiming or shouting from the stage with a few twangs from selected orchestra members. Jake Heggie seems to have escaped from this imperative somewhat. He at least does try “to suspend time to allow for eloquent vocal and musical expression of emotion.”

  • JohninSeattle

    Such wonderful insight, as always from Mr. I. I was struck by this: “She might have had more success attempting a more intimate work with a clearer and simpler emotional arc.”

    There it is: why opera has different narrative rules than say theatre, film or novels. Verdi couldn’t wrestle LEAR to the ground despite his enormous talent. But he succeeded when he stripped Macbeth of much of its action and plot to get to a more direct (and simpler) narrative arc. FALSTAFF exceeds the original for the reasons stated -- there is room for the emotional arc of the characters. È sogno o realtà is but a few lines for Ford but a great and revelatory moment for the character.

    Music makes the Marshallin’s emotional journey real. It’s not plot. It’s not narrative. That final scene with the three of them is what -- two or three actions? But the music lifts and carries this. As a script, it may not work to the same degree it works as a scene from an opera.

    The characters want room to breath, to dream, to aspire, to brood, to nurse murderous grudges. That’s part of what opera gives us better than the other art forms. In a novel I can read the thoughts of characters. In an opera, I can hear murderous rage of Azucena -- decades old -- churning uncontrolled and unsatisfied.

    Bravo, Alberto.

  • armerjacquino

    A treat to read such an intelligent, detailed review of a work I’ll almost certainly never get to see live.

    Also ‘counterintuitive tessitura’ is definitely going to become part of the tongue/hard palate section of my vocal warmup.

    • le cerf agile

      …and the phrase “counterintuitive tessitura” when set to music would probably end up as yet more colorless parlando….

      • le cerf agile

        Just an observation on potential prosody in my comment above, and no mockery of AI’s writing was intended! As always, your insights are some of the richest and most enjoyable contributions to the conversations here.

  • laddie

    I, too, saw this work in Santa Fe last summer. AI you are of course completely in the know here. As far as positive reviews go, there were a lot, but I believe Zachary Wolfe also called it as he saw it.

    Wonderful read! I learn so much!

  • Great review! More to come from you please!!!

  • Pia Ngere-Liu

    I agree -- at least two per month.

  • Niel Rishoi

    A sheer pleasure to read your intelligent words, Albert -- thank you so much!

  • CwbyLA

    Great review Albert! So informative. It was a great pleasure to read it. I saw the work in Santa Fe last year. It was my first time at the Santa Fe Opera and I was probably overly excited to be in such a gorgeous setting. I actually liked the opera and thought Jay Hunter Morris was amazing. However, the story telling was pretty non-linear. But I thought it was due to the frequent flashbacks. It was still really nice to be part of the world premiere of a work by an important contemporary composer. I wonder if there were any changes made between Santa Fe and Philadelphia performances.

  • mrsjohnclaggart

    I thank all who read and commented. I’m glad you liked the opera, CwbyLA. I agree with you about Hunter Morris. As to my petty thoughts, well as you know opinions are like assholes… (and by them too, as I know too well). Reviews start to matter most when art forms are dying; a large passionate audience will make up its own mind, and in the past in all the now endangered arts (spoken plays, opera, the symphony, ballet) all had large numbers of supporters who as Verdi noted voted at the box office with their money, which was all that mattered. Now, too often, we depend on reviews to tell us who and what is important.

    My response was sincere but it is one response to one performance and may the work wax!

    In response to a comment above, Cold Mountain as is typical today was a shared commission with Santa Fe, Minnesota Opera and North Carolina Opera. This shares costs of the commission itself as well as production and gives the opera a chance at least 19 performances for different audiences in different parts of the country. The fate of new operas that get four or five performances in one house and then disappear is avoided.

    According to someone who had worked on Cold Mountain at Santa Fe, there hadn’t been many changes but I don’t know if there were significant alternations say in orchestration which he may not have known of. The opportunities for changes are there but given that production and where possible cast are shared perhaps not so many (the productions take place over about a year and a half).

    I have no respect for Moravec, so I don’t expect much from that. Learning to use singing to create character and emotion even when there is an eloquent harmonic and orchestral underpinning is elusive now.

    Many older composers were trained in an opera-hating environment where liking voices and learning what works in different ranges were thought ridiculous. It’s not a surprise that Higdon is more sure footed with instrumental music (hers though very well made divides opinion, “Yannick” called her a genius but several English reviewers of some stature thought she was dull and predictable, safe, with only superficial appeal).

    Yardbird showed that most of the traps could be avoided despite an opaque libretto which obscured some important aspects of Charlie Parker’s (Bird or Yardbird was his nickname) life. But Schnyder, who is 53, is one of the two composers of new operas who has developed a personal style (the other, very different, is the amazing George Benjamin, at 54 also a mature artist, in Written on Skin).

    Though influenced by “bop” Schnyder uses his own sense of how to build melodies, use complex chords to enrich them, employ classical forms to unite the work and he can write both soaring vocal lines and “scat” — seeming to arise spontaneously from the ongoing musical discourse of the 14 instruments in the pit (from which Schnyder elicits gorgeous and surprising textures — as an ironic gesture he does not use Bird’s instrument, the saxophone).

    The mostly amazing cast (led by the spectacular Lawrence Brownlee) helped.

    So it can be done — it’s just rare. Thanks again everyone for your comments.

    • Indiana Loiterer III

      Reviews start to matter most when art forms are dying; a large passionate audience will make up its own mind, and in the past in all the now endangered arts (spoken plays, opera, the symphony, ballet) all had large numbers of supporters who as Verdi noted voted at the box office with their money, which was all that mattered. Now, too often, we depend on reviews to tell us who and what is important.

      So where would that leave movie reviewers, particularly during the 60s & 70s, when writers like Pauline Kael were in vogue? While the masses enjoying Jaws wouldn’t have cared one way or the other about good reviews, that large minority that looked out for the latest Bergman or the latest Godard certainly seems to have.

      • mrsjohnclaggart

        I don’t agree with you. Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, were world famous, their films drew people with an interest in what was called “art house fare” in huge numbers everywhere. Kael mattered less to their reputations than a fart in a hurricane and she is forgotten now; they are — less forgotten — and will always be there to be rediscovered in their greatness.

        You are transferring artistic importance from creators to opinion givers, often coarse opportunists like Kael who parlayed an individual, saucy style into fake expertise. She was just a whore as many high profile reviewers are, “certified” by the zine of the haute bourgeoisie called The New Yorker. She bombed movies that went on to make massive amounts of money because people wanted to see them, and in some cases still want to see them old as they are now, and she mattered to few save those seeking approval for their own tastes.

        Given the chance and the money to do it, really make art, finally, she couldn’t and made a fool of herself.

        When an art form is genuinely popular people make up their own minds, period. That doesn’t mean what they like is “good”, it means the opinion givers don’t matter. And frankly, history hasn’t found many of the opinion givers to be right.

        And I went on and on and if you are kind enough to have gotten this far you would have fallen over in a faint had you persisted, so I stopped. I think you understand my point (but may not agree…)

        • phoenix

          +++++don’t forget all those dreadful operacritics from our salad days -- then and now

          • mrsjohnclaggart

            Yes, I just read a rave from a local booster, who I’ve met, and indeed is pals with one of the ….. here. Nothing about the music, and real bullshit about the libretto. This idiot mostly reviews plays (and is mostly wrong) but that’s where we are.

            I don’t see much room for making a case for this particular work, although Higdon’s ability to write accessible music (as demonstrated in her non-vocal work) does suggest she might manage effective stage work if she gets the chance again. (I’ll admit to not loving the “neo-romantic” style(s) adopted by a lot of people today — Sam Barber was born in 1910, loved opera from his childhood, his aunt was the famous contralto Louise Homer, and studied with rather conservative teachers at Curtis so I think he wrote out of a more spontaneous connection with late romanticism. A lot of out contemporary “neo” style sounds contrived to me, he sounds derivative sometimes but more direct — but then again there is also the shock of something working that one doesn’t expect to work.)

            She’d be better off if she were 30 and this was given in a small place and allowed her to see what she did well, what she did less well and what traps she would face. But those who live long enough will see if this work does go on beyond its commissioned performances….

  • Redburn

    Many thanks to the author of this superbly-written review. It and Zachary Wolfe’s “New York Times” review capture with greatest detail, accuracy, and common sense the impressions I, as an opera professional, took away from the Philadelphia staging. I don’t know anyone in the business who wanted this work to be a dud, but it was unrealistic (or cynical) to predict (and market) it as the fully-formed debut of a born opera composer. Verdi had to compose “Stiffelio” to learn the lessons that that work taught him. He listened. One hopes that Dr. Higdon is listening, too.