I have always enjoyed visiting Philadelphia. I have been there many times on both business and vacation trips. The historical sites, museums, and great food make it a special place to spend a few days. So, when I heard that the new opera, Cold Mountain, was going to have its east coast premiere in Philadelphia, the decision to go was easy. The fact that it starred Nathan Gunn and Isabelle Leonard, who anchored the world premiere of the opera at the Sante Fe Opera last August, made it especially appealing (though closer to the Philly opening Mr. Gunn had to withdraw for family reasons). So, on February 10, my wife and I began the three-hour trek north from Vienna, VA and up I-95. As a special treat, my wife had booked us into the Doubletree Hotel across the street from the Academy of Music, the venue for the opera. We literally walked out of our room, across the street, and into our seats.
Cold Mountain is, of course, based on the book by Charles Frazier which was adapted into a hit movie of the same name; I have not read the book nor seen the movie. The composer of the opera is the award-winning Jennifer Higdon and librettist is Gene Scheer. The evening’s excitement began when Ms. Higdon joined in the pre-opera lecture answering questions provided by an Academy host. Listening to the composer discuss her approach and work habits in tackling this herculean task was spell binding. She described how she tried to make the music support the characters, the scene, and the overall story line. She pointed out the singers, musicians, and others involved in bringing the opera to life, including her work with the book’s author. She stated it took her about 28 months working almost twenty-four seven to complete the work. Certainly hearing the composer talk about her creation increased my anticipation to hear the opera performed. New opera is exciting in ways that the old classics are not.
How was it? My wife and I enjoyed the opera immensely. I thought the music was only good, not great, but it was exciting as a new, American opera nonetheless. The music was creative in its design to support the words, the characters, and the mood of the scenes; it had a few memorable arias and some touching choral music. In the performance we saw, the orchestra tended to overpower the singers. I also keep in mind that this was one hearing. I await the recording so I can listen again and focus just on the music. The cast was excellent, the staging creative, and the story was engaging. Isabelle Leonard, as Ada, is world class, and Jarrett Ott, who took over for Gunn playing the role of Inman, was quite good, though to my ear his voice was a bit more popular than true operatic. Cecilia Hall who played the important role of Ruby was quite affecting. Go see it. It is Jennifer Higdon's first opera and we definitely want to encourage her to compose more.
I like taking opera vacations and plan to do more. We are fortunate in the mid-Atlantic region to have such a wealth of good opera in driving distances of a few hours and in cities worth visiting of their own accord. One traveling suggestion: anyone who travels I-95 north of Baltimore knows this, but having an EZ Pass account and a transponder in your car can save you significant time traversing the many toll booths on 95. One very minor caution for the Academy of Music theater in Philly: it seems rather compact for its seating size, close to 3,000; the rows, at least in the orchestra section where we were seated, are close together compared to other venues I’ve visited. If you tend to need extra legroom, you may want to consider the box seats for added comfort.