Cold Mountain

Academy of Music. ColdMountain. Music: Jennifer Higdon. Base on the epic novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Stage Director: Leonard Foglia. Music Director: Corrado Rovaris. Jarrett Ott, W.P. Inman. Isabel Leonard, Ada Monroe. Cecelia Hall, Ruby Thewes. Jay Hunter Morris: Teague. Paul Groves: Veasey. Marietta Simpson: Lucinda. Anthony Michaels-Moore: Reverend Monroe/Pangle/Home guard. Rachel Sterrenberg: Sara. Heather Stebbins: Lila. Heather Phillips: Katie. Lauren Eberwein: Olivia. Olivia Vote: Claire. Roy Hage: Reid/Home guard. John David Miles: Thomas. Aimee Pilgermayer: Laura. Andrew Farkas: Birch. Francesca Luzi: Grace. Jackson Williams: Owens’son. Marcus DeLoach: Owens/Ethan/Home Guard. Alasdair Kent: Junior/Charlie.

This opera is based on the best seller of the same title by Charles Frazier. It was made into a movie that
received seven Oscar nominations. The setting is mostly in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina during the American Civil War. A co-production of Opera Philadelphia with Santa Fe Opera, Minnesota Opera and North Carolina Opera, this performance was the US East Coast premiere, here at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

This opera is set during the American Civil War between the North and the South of the United States. Society and economies were changing when the Industrial Revolution arrived. The industry was predominant in the North and in big cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston, and the need for slave was much reduced, unlike in the agricultural economy of the South. Many people, especially in the north, considered slavery an abomination. We remember Tubman, Douglas, Brown and Beecher Stowe as important abolitionists.

Abraham Lincoln was elected as President of the United States on an anti-slavery platform. At that time, 11 states of the South seceded from the US, creating an independent Confederacy.  Lincoln sent the troops to stop the separation of the South and preserve the Union.  In this way a war which took 4 long years started. At least six hundred thousand American people died. After the war, Congress passed and Abraham Lincoln signed constitutional Amendments to abolish slavery and provide all men rights as citizens.

This opera is about the daily lives of the confederates soldiers and their families. Everyday they dug the trenches in the morning to fight in the afternoon, to die, to be hungry and cold, sick with contagious illnesses; the lack of medicine and medical techniques led to many amputations and deaths… Still, in their free time, they played some music or dominoes. By the end of the war, many soldiers of the Confederate Army were starving. They received letters from their wives and families who beg their return. Many of them deserted.

“My Dear Edward, I have always been proud of you, and since your connection with the Confederate Army, I have been prouder of you than ever before. I would not have you do anything wrong for the world, but, before God, Edward, unless you come home, we must die. Last night I was awaken by little Eddie’s crying, I called and said “What is the matter Eddie? And she said, Oh momma, I am so hungry. And Lucy, Edward, your darling Lucy, she never complains, but she is growing thinner and thinner every day. And, before God, Edward, unless you come home, we must die. – Your Mary”

And this is the story of Inman in ColdMountain.

The composer, Jennifer Higdon, originally from Brooklyn, New York, lives in Philadelphia. She received a Pulitzer Prize for her composition in 2010, and then the commission to write Cold Mountain.

The composer wrote, “I really tried to write music that encapsulated the characters. Ruby is a very nervous character so the music always moves fast. Ada float’s along and gets smarter throughout the opera and her music changes with her. I use lots of brass for Inman as he’s been hollowed and alone four years. Teague, the bad guy – there’s always some sort of snake sound when he is on stage, like rattles in the percussion. Ruby’s father actually plays a fiddle in the opera! I actually have the wind and brass players blowing into their instruments to indicate wind sounds. The percussionist uses tree branches and knitting needles on bells to have twinkling sounds when stars are mentioned. My favorite moment is a chorus of the ghosts of soldiers that died: “Buried and Forgotten”. It is a very emotional part of the opera”

The stage is set with overlapped beams which give the form of a mountain, a cold mountain of war debris and rubble. My first sight, the way of the beams in triangles, the remembering of the destroyed buildings by the bombs, so dark and cold, burned by the fire and the destruction, the imaginable dead bodies under it… as if I was watching an enormous three dimensional version of Picasso’s Guernika.

The opera begins with a masculine internal chorus. White lights are projected over and around an enormous figure, lit by weak rays of sun through fog, progressively tinted red.

The music features from the beginning two predominant instruments: flute and percussion. Rapidly descending scales arrive to high chords, in a repetitive way, with disonances and fast rhythms. During all the opera, blue lights follow on Inman, telling us of his battle under the rain while the music provides the effects of drops of water from the rain. Yellow lights announces the entrance of Ada Monroe. Two simultaneous dialogues happen among the characters, who are separated by the mountain, in two different spaces and lighted under blue and yellow respectively. They don’t talk to each other. Everyone tells us his/her story in the same moment and from different places of the action. Some couples of those times cross the stage so the are again centered in the time and the place, in a moment of visual realism that breaks both spaces.

The storm breaks through these thoughts to take us into the reality. The mountain is transformed and a boat appears with two men sailing and fighting for survival. Ada and Ruby appear under the sun light, we listen to the wind and the birds singing… but then the deserter soldiers appear and the lighting surges blue and red. The stars appear outside the stage in the theater, and the first line of the patio brightens with stars. “Come back to me is my request” are the words of Ada. But Inman leaves with the deserters while Ada stands immobile. And so the first act finishes.

The second act starts with all the theatre full of stars and we hear the phrase: “I still believe in something more in the sky, in the shadow”. We hear solos of violin during the scene of a woman with a crying baby, giving more realism to the situation, and a sextet of dissonant voices. A mixed internal and external chorus of soldiers intones “Buried and forgotten in the fields, under the trees”. The soldiers and the voices appear progressively on stage in one of the most beautiful musical scenes to end in the phrase “Oh beautiful country”.

The lovers finally reunite. Inman confesses to us that “I am not how I was” and Ada asks him “Tell me” with a solo of harp. After that all the characters appear on stage demanding of Inman “Tell her who we were.” Inman nonetheless dies after their single night together. In a postscript, children run around giving a new reality to the story and a happy Alda tells us: “Orion, I still believe in the indivisible hidden in the skies in the stars above”.

We enjoyed the very expressive and beautiful voice of Jarrett Ott as Inman. Cecelia Hall as Ruby shows a very nice voice and vocal line. Jay Hunter as Teague was so effective that at the end he receives “boo” from the public, so in America this booing are received by bad guys, so good for him. Isabel Leonard is perfect for the character of Ada. Marietta Simpson as Lucinda shows a warm voice, vocal line and acting. Rachel Sterrenberg shows a really great musical and acting performance.

The male chorus under the direction of Elizabeth Braden dazzles us with a terrific performance. However, the recitativos seem to me too repetitive in general. The musical effects with the percussion for the wind, the storm and the contrast with the orchestration gives more interest and agility. We thought the lighting effects by Brian Nason and the design of the projections by Elaine Mac Carthy were particularly excellent. And we were impressed by the stage direction of Leonard Foglia and the musical direction by conductor Corrado Rovaris.

To learn more about the author or follow her journey go to 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *