Cold Mountain opera
Music Academy of the West stages the West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s opera “Cold Mountain.” (Phil Channing photo)

The Music Academy of the West’s summer vocal institute, led by director James Darrah, again brought a fresh, invigorating performance to the Santa Barbara stage.

This year, we were privileged to enjoy the West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s award-winning first opera, Cold Mountain, based on the historical novel about the Civil War south by Charles Frazier.

The performance opens with a man digging in a pile of dark soil that covered a third of the Granada Theatre stage. Eventually, he ends up dead and buried in the dirt himself, a swift preview of the nature of the Civil War as captured in Cold Mountain.

The opera tells the story of a Southern couple torn apart by war. When Inman, the young suitor, leaves to fight for the South, he’s certain the war won’t last more than six months. The couple plan to reunite by the time the constellation Orion returns in the sky.

Four years later, his love Ada has been brought low by the war as well. Having lost her father and family’s wealth, she sings, “I was taught to be a lady, not to survive.”

Ada learns to live on the mountain with the help of Ruby, a woman with skills won from growing up with a ne’er-do-well father: “Hunger was my only teacher.”

Body and spirit ravaged by combat and betrayal, Inman flees the confederate army to risk making his way back to Ada.

During his odyssey home (loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey), he survives a dicey collaboration with a corrupt pastor, entrapment by Southern sirens, being hunted, captured, enchained and nearly assassinated by the Home Guard (who patrolled the country for deserters), confrontation with an escaped slave who finds herself on the other side of the chains, saving an ailing infant and his widowed mother as well as starvation and the elements.

Higdon’s music conveys a range of emotion and experience, from sweeping love for country, countryside, home and family to rampant stranger danger of every kind, and from battlefields and thunderstorms to wonder-filled stargazing and momentary comfort. 

All vocals were strong, clear and ear-pleasing, with nary a soprano squeak at the top of the range nor splashy pyrotechnics on anyone’s part. The women’s arias, men’s chorus and a couple of rapturous duets between Ada and Inman offer melodic landmarks in a narrative-based score.

Cold Mountain opera

“Cold Mountain” tells the story of a Southern couple torn apart by war. (Phil Channing photo)

Amid painful, desperate conditions, Ruby offers several moments of earthy wit.

When the two women convene after Inman’s return, Ada assures Ruby that his arrival won’t change things between them. And though Ruby emphasizes that they don’t need him, when Ada sings that she may want him, Ruby practically speaks the words, “Well, that’s a different thing,” and exits the scene.

Creative staging enhanced the production: projected visuals ranged from sparkling water at a river’s edge, shadows of fighters sneaking through woods, blood streaming upward as it was spilled on the ground.

On several occasions when guns were shot, a flash of light and actors momentarily frozen in place preceded them falling to the ground in death.

Twice in the second half, the ensemble returns to the stage to surround a soloist — all those who died, but live in the scar tissue of war, and later, all those Inman encountered on his journey home.

Higdon, the prolific contemporary classical composer, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and two Grammy awards, who served at this year’s academy as composer-in-residence, hit a home run along with librettist Gene Sheer with Cold Mountain, winning the 2016 International Opera Award for World Premiere. The novel won the National Book Award in 1997.

The production lived up to its pedigree.

— Local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. The opinions expressed are her own.