N.C. Opera’s “Cold Mountain” Thursday night was a tremendous success, and in many ways is the company’s greatest achievement in its eight-season history.
The first-rate cast and artistic team created an experience that firmly establishes N.C. Opera’s big-time credentials.
The effort to bring home the operatic version of North Carolina author Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel of doomed love didn’t come easily.
Three years of preparations and fundraising allowed the company to share the work’s commissioning and physical production with the opera companies of Santa Fe, Philadelphia and Minnesota. The Carolina Performing Arts series partnered with the N.C. Opera, further supporting costs and promotion, to allow for its North Carolina debut. It’s only the third time it has been presented in the country.
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The worthy results began with conductor Christopher Allen knowingly shaping Jennifer Higdon’s score, a taut through-line propelling the music’s wistful, moody atmosphere. The large orchestra ably provided battle cacophony or moonlit romance, as needed.
Edward Parks employed his clear, warm baritone to characterize Confederate soldier Inman’s wearied despair and his determination to make it home. Parks blended beautifully with soprano Melinda Whittington’s Ada, the Charleston belle-turned-farmer who waited faithfully for Inman’s return. Her voice was delicate in reveries of the past and soaring in passionate love duets.
Mezzo Emily Fons was an audience favorite as Ruby, Ada’s industrious farm helpmate. Most of Ruby’s music demands a no-nonsense edge, and Fons supplied it with humor and spunk. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris, as the villain Teague who tracks down deserters, colored his threats so menacingly that he was heartily booed (approvingly) at his curtain call.
Among the 16 main roles, all well cast, standouts included Roger Honeywell’s libidinous preacher, Veasey; Kristopher Irmiter’s wily Stobrod, who is Ruby’s father; Deborah Nansteel’s runaway slave, Lucinda; and Scott Macleod’s “gentle-brained” Pangle. The men’s chorus made a particular impression with two haunting hymns to the Civil War dead.
Robert Brill’s massive setting of rough wooden planks and platforms filled the steeply angled playing area like an explosion caught in mid-blast. Brian Nason’s jaw-dropping lighting turned the set into raging rivers, snow-covered fields and star-lit mountaintops instantaneously. David C. Woolard’s appropriately tattered and soiled costumes added a true feel for the period.
Stage director Keturah Stickann effectively guided the many comings and goings over the opera’s 23 scenes, despite several sections where singers’ faces were blocked by awkward placement on the unforgiving set.
Hidgdon’s first opera offers many engaging moments, especially magical and emotional in the intimate portions. When the vocal lines become intense and full of action, however, the orchestration is often so thick and churning that it competes with the singers.
Gene Scheer’s libretto attempts all the book’s important scenes but covers so much plot so quickly that prior knowledge of the book or movie is required to keep up.
Quibbles about the material don’t detract from N.C. Opera’s laudable achievement. Although not every production can be expected at this extra-effort level, “Cold Mountain” proves the company’s ability to provide it when properly funded.
What: “Cold Mountain” presented by N.C. Opera and Carolina Performing Arts
Where: Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, on the UNC campus
When: 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 1
Info: 919-843-3333 or ncopera.org