Cold Mountain: The Civil War’s Night at the Opera

Cold Mountain: The Civil War’s Night at the Opera

“War chisels your soul with fear and bitterness into something dark and strange. Hard to find your way back in so much darkness, from so much pain” – Inman (Act II, Scene X)

On Friday night, February 5, 2016, Cold Mountain made its Philadelphia debut at the Academy of Music. The historic theatre was an appropriate setting for the operatic adaptation of Charles Frazier’s 1997 National Book Award novel of the same name. Cold Mountain, which follows the unconventional love story of Ada Monroe and W.P. Inman throughout the Civil War, explores themes of broken homes, broken bodies, and broken souls. Needless to say, the destruction and despair wrought by the Civil War was on full display.

Staged by Opera Philadelphia, Cold Mountain was developed as part of the American Repertoire Program, which promotes the creation of contemporary American opera. Like Philip Glass’s Appomattox, this adaptation of Cold Mountain does not claim historical accuracy, but it is part of a renewed popular interest in the history the era. Just as Hollywood has begun to give the history of slavery serious attention (see: 12 Years A Slave and Nate Parker’s forthcoming, The Birth of A Nation), it seems fair to say that the Civil War is having a moment in the fine arts. While this is undoubtedly good news for scholars and buffs, some may worry if enhanced public visibility will come at the expense of historical accuracy.

Cold Mountain offers a dark portrait of the Southern home front. Opera Philadelphia’s exemplary setting and lighting designs beautifully captured the harsh nature of life at Cold Mountain. In fact, the Confederacy looks more like London following the Blitz than rural North Carolina. Marked by asymmetrical pieces of wood, coal pits, and dozens of gunshots, the staging effectively evokes the sense of despair felt by the characters. Instead of Lost Cause visions of stalwart Confederate patriots, we see a South inhabited by deserters, hungry women and children, and a vicious Home Guard.

A final farewell before Inman goes off to war. Image courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

There are serious ideas at work in Cold Mountain. The struggles of Ada and Inman beg questions, such as what does it mean to go to war and how does one cope with loss? Cold Mountain can’t fully answer these questions, but it opens an intriguing window into war’s physical and mental destruction. In fact, there is a tragic, Shakespearian quality to Cold Mountain; in that, death is inescapable. Even though the tone of Cold Mountain can be sullen, librettist Gene Scheer offers moments of levity. A personal favorite is when an unsavory preacher and traveling companion of Inman named Veasey notes, “I might move on to Texas…All you need to start a life in Texas is guns.”

As history, Cold Mountain yields mixed results. Cold Mountain includes intriguing depictions of strong, independent female characters. Ruby Thewes, a mountain woman, teaches Ada how to survive on her own. In return, Ada teaches Ruby how to read and allows her to live on her father’s farm. The two form a partnership that allows them to avoid starvation and harassment from the villainous, Home Guard leader, Teague. When Inman returns at the end of Act II, Ruby tells Ada that, “we can do without him [Inman]. You might think we can’t, but we can. We’re just starting…There’s not a thing we can’t do ourselves.” Ruby’s independence is a far cry from Stephanie McCurry’s real-life soldiers’ wives, who demanded attention because of their dependence on men. Ultimately, fate decides that Ada must move on without Inman.

Ruby and Ada’s refreshing self-sufficiency is not reflected in the show’s portrait of Lucinda, a runaway slave. Lucinda is arguably the most compelling character in Cold Mountain but she doesn’t appear until scene one…of act two! Because Cold Mountain is loosely chronological, Lucinda’s appearance does not occur until mid-1864, long after slaves began running away, of course, and too late in the plot for her character to be meaningful. Lucinda serves a very limited purpose in the plot. She stumbles upon a wounded, chained Inman and sets him free. I understand the symbolism of an enslaved person freeing the white protagonist but it felt as if Lucinda became nothing more than a prop, useful only to advance the plot.

A reunited Ada and Inman. Image courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Jennifer Higdon, produced an uneven score. While Higdon excels at a number of evocative moments, such as the duet between Inman and Ada that concludes Act I, she fails to consistently capture the visceral emotions of the story. Moments of romance found in the half-point of the show were often framed by disjointed moments of tragedy in Act II. The real emotion behind this opera derives from the performances of Jarrett Ott (Inman), Isabel Leonard (Ada), and Cecelia Hall (Ruby), who offer excellent presentations of deeply scarred characters. Of particular note was Jay Hunter Morris’s brilliant portrayal of Teague. Whenever the chain-smoking Teague entered the stage, I was fully prepared for some form of war crime to occur, especially summary executions of Confederate deserters,. These performances make Cold Mountain well worth the price of admission.

Jay Hunter Morris as Teague. Image courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Cold Mountain provokes and challenges, as all good opera should, but Cold Mountain’s somber, historically-driven themes situate it as a large conceptual piece. At times, Cold Mountain reaches intellectual heights and is successful at evoking an emotional response to the pain of the Civil War, but it is difficult to retain this connection for the duration of a nearly three-hour show. Cold Mountain is a fundamentally human story and, like life, it doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Cold Mountain runs at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia from February 5 to February 14. Ticket information can be found at Opera Philadelphia.

James Kopaczewski

James is a Ph.D. student at Temple University. He can be reached at james.kopaczewski@temple.edu.

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