First there was  Charles Frazier’s 1997 National Book Award-winning novel, Cold Mountain: a Civil War romance that sold over three million copies. Then there was the 2003 Academy Award-winning movie, which starred Nicole Kidmann, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger. Cold Mountain the opera, which premiered this summer at Santa Fe, is the first such effort by Pulitzer Prize-winning instrumental composer Jennifer Hidgon, with a libretto by Gene Scheer (Moby Dick). As new operas go, this one was surely a publicist’s dream. News of the opening attracted national TV and radio attention, and critics from all over the US were sent to file reports. Was it a big set-up for failure?

The good news is that Scheer’s telling of the tale worked magnificently; the set, by Robert Brill, lighting by Brian Nason and projections by Elaine J. McCarthy managed to communicate complex changes in time, location and action with elegant simplicity, and the orchestral contributions by Hidgon were fresh, often moving, and very American. There was a nod to John Adams in the score, but also a kind of edgy Americana, complete with powerful writing for male chorus, and an attempt to communicate the flavor of rural North Carolina, not far from where Higdon grew up.

Is Higdon finished working? No. Is she a natural at the operatic medium? Not so much. Still, she seems willing to try harder to make this right. She was heard to comment at a recent press conference that she had already begun rewriting passages of the score. After the première in Santa Fe, the opera will appear at Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera (co-commissioners) as well as North Carolina Opera. It would be interesting to watch and listen to the edits as the opera moves from city to city.

Nathan Gunn plays Inman, the wounded and disillusioned Confederate soldier whose odyssey home parallels the story of his girl, Ada Monoe, played by Isabel Leonard. The two singers project believability as a couple in love, but Gunn’s vocal parts, especially in the first act, keep him living a minor sixth outside the main story, at least musically. Leonard is an expressive singer with a clean tone. Her emotions colored beautifully the moments in the score where Higdon finally let her rip. As an actress playing a Southern Lady stuck during the war on a failing farm, however, she could have shown a bit of desperation. There is a lot of killing going on in this opera, a lot of lying and deception and tragedy, but Leonard seemed almost cheerful, a little too Mary Poppins in her portrayal of Ada – as if she was living a Disney version of the American Civil War. The director, Leonard Foglia, should have made her live in dirty clothes for a few weeks.

Ada’s sidekick, Ruby (the Zellweger part) was sung by Emily Fons, a lithe mezzo who brought the swagger of a regular in trouser roles to her part as a farm hand/friend. Jay Hunter Morris was a multifaceted villain, representing the essence of a good idea gone bad, as the Home Guard, designed to protect the citizens left behind in the southern states during the War, turned into a killing machine of deserters, especially as the war headed toward a loss for the Confederate forces. His voice was heroic and clear, but his actions were the opposite. Roger Honeywell, as a crooked preacher, Anthony Michaels-Moore, playing Ada’s father and Kevin Burdette, as Ruby’s fiddle-playing Dad, added layers of musical character and empathy to the evening.

One waits for a moment of vocal catharsis, which never comes. There are no big arias to cheer for, no string of high Cs for a tenor, or much fortissimo for the crowds of soldiers and females who wander through the evening. What Higdon seems to have created is a kind of symphonic masterwork with voices. Dissonance is nearly always tempered by fiddle, major keys belong to dead soldiers whose choral harmonies carry the truth of new spirituals, and the emotional power of the story builds with simplicity instead of bombast. But Scheer’s poetic telescoping of a rather labyrinthine work of pop literature walks the line between political commentary and romance brilliantly. There is much to work with.