Thursday, Sep. 28, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 1, 2 p.m.
UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
It’s a first principle of adaptation: the main reason to translate an artwork into another medium is to explore it more fully, to draw out facets its first form could not. Ultimately, an adaptation stands or falls on two points: how it enhances our experience of the work that inspired it, and how faithful it is to that work.
These criteria leave us with mixed thoughts on Cold Mountain, composer Jennifer Higdon and librettist Gene Scheer’s operatic adaptation of Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel, whose North Carolina Opera/Carolina Performing Arts production closes with a matinee at Memorial Hall on Sunday.
The subject is fitting for opera: W.P. Inman’s (Edward Parks) three-hundred-mile trek from a Raleigh Confederate hospital to his home in the western part of the state is a Homeric odyssey, complete with sirens. The role that music plays in Frazier’s text buttresses the connection.
Although Higdon spent her teenage years near the Smoky Mountains, her striking, prismatic, at times capricious score sounds more like Charles Ives’s New England than Appalachia. That’s particularly true of the uncompromising dissonances that symbolize the Civil War’s schism in the battle scene at the close of Act One. Though fiddles and banjos are brandished on stage, they remain unheard. The only folk song, “Shady Grove,” is a tagline for the odious Teague (Jay Hunter Morris), who menaces Inman’s love, Ada (Melinda Whittington), and her helpmeet, Ruby (Emily Fons). Teague’s Home Guard roams the countryside hunting deserters like Inman and Ruby’s father, Stobrod (Kristopher Irmiter).
I can fault neither the chemistry between Parks’s earnest Inman and Whittington’s passionate Ada nor Fons’s sterling, straightforward take on the role she originated. Gene Scheer’s libretto is poetic, though the corners it cuts to get an overlong work on stage leaves motivations in certain roles a mystery.
Designer Robert Brill’s remarkable original set design, a multistory chaos of charred and fallen timbers, starkly visualizes Lincoln’s adage of a house divided against itself. It only turns awkward in the final scene when it suggests that, ten year later, few repairs have been made at Black Cove Farm.
But a more fundamental problem haunts this work. Over the last century, as many have openly questioned the continuing relevance of opera, its practitioners have reimagined the art form on several fronts. Works including Porgy and Bess have brought previously unexplored voices, dialects, and communities into the realm of opera.
Cold Mountain presented another opportunity to expand the genre’s range. From prior productions, we understand that Higdon worked with her New York librettist to make the text sound more authentically Southern. But whatever her intentions were, they’ve been largely erased among conductor Christopher Allen’s vocalists. They display virtually no trace of Southern accents, and the specter of cultural appropriation joins this talented cast on stage.
Something is amiss when the overt musicality and rhythms of Southern speech are erased as thoroughly as they have been here. Why have Southern voices been judged artistically and aesthetically insufficient to tell a Southern tale? Are they truly so incompatible with an idée fixe about what an operatic voice sounds like, even after a century of innovation?
I think the answer is no. The Southern accents I heard in one production of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, for example, gave that Tennessee-based work a credibility that another production without accents lacked. The experiences suggest that one of the main obstacles to authenticity in dialect in opera resides in practitioners who cannot conceive that it has any place there.
It is an act of courage and imagination for composers and librettists to bring previously unheard voices into an art form, and conductors and performers must follow suit to ensure that those voices are heard. Unfortunately, they are hard to hear at present in Cold Mountain.