Perched on its hill north of town, the Santa Fe Opera doesn't shy away from nouveau. Since the shop opened in 1957, we've blithely come to expect world premieres (14 so far) and American premieres (43 so far) from our hometown team. Ovations, too. This reporter remembers plenty of those, ranging from the obligatory to the appreciative. But none to match the stomping, yelling whoop-dee-doo that greeted—most deservedly—last Saturday night's premiere of Cold Mountain, Jennifer Higdon's first but, we hope, not last operatic effort. This show ranks as the SFO's finest American outing since its unforgettable Bicentennial production, The Mother of Us All. But first—attend, please, to some background.

Next time you're in Charleston, stop by Washington Square Park—leafy, floriferous and embellished with plenty of commemorative ornaments, largely about The War, as many Southerners still describe it. There's the obligatory marble of our first president, and an imposing replica of his DC obelisk, here honoring Confederate soldiers who fought in the Washington Light Infantry. There's a memorial to Confederate General PGT Beauregard and, more to the point, a bronze bust of Henry Timrod, best known as the Poet Laureate of the Confederacy.

Inscribed upon the pedestal, words from his flowery 1867 Ode: "Sleep sweetly in your humble graves/Sleep, martyrs of a fallen cause." Tender and honorable sentiments indeed. But furlongs distant from the shell-shocked war memories of WP Inman, hero of both Charles Frazier's 1997 novel, Cold Mountain, and Higdon's spanking-new opera.

Contrast Timrod with the insistent refrain of the opera's haunting Chorus of the Dead (soldiers, sons, civilians): "Buried…Buried and forgotten," a choral phrase repeated six times in Gene Scheer's fine libretto. Cold Mountain doesn't especially set out to be an "Anthem for Doomed Youth," in Wilfred Owen's phrase. But it is.

Just as it partakes of a genre that the Greeks dubbed nostoi, tales of homecoming, whether featuring Odysseus or Agamemnon or the Prodigal Son or Leopold Bloom. Or Inman, the wounded and defeated ("I'm just a hut of bones") Confederate deserter who's determined to find his way back home in an epic, deadly trek from a Raleigh hospital to Cold Mountain and his beloved Ada Monroe.

Because it's also a love story, first and last. Even though Ada, minister's daughter and Charleston-bred blossom of delicate uselessness, and Inman, initially shy and tongue-tied country boy, had met only two or three times before The War and his enlistment. But recall the equally tongue-tied hero, Orlando, of As You Like It, and that play's Marlovian observation, "Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?" That's Inman.

Because of and despite Inman's valley-of-death war horrors and death-fraught journey, because of and despite Ada's struggle to survive and maintain her Black Cove Farm, their love finds consummation at last in a lightning-flash embrace. Ultimately, that's what this complex show is all about.

And what draws that ovation. Higdon and Scheer make Frazier's novel sing. Higdon's all-American orchestrations persuade rather than insist. You'll hear echoes of Copland's plein-air instrumentation, Virgil Thomson's plain-as-Dick's-hatband harmonies and, especially, Samuel Barber's writing for the voice: clarity, tonality, humanity. Words come first. Music enhances and enlarges the text via fluid accompanied recitative that connects affecting arias with impressive ensembles.

Not to ignore the work's violence. Cold Mountain is about weaponry and death as well as redemptive love. Gunshots punctuate the action; you lose count of corpses; the orchestra roars its anger. Scheer's sensitive libretto, like the novel, places the humanity of Inman, Ada, and Ada's rough-hewn farm partner, Ruby Thewes, within a murderous world of fear and betrayal. Teague, the mocking, icy enemy of life, almost gets the last word.

SFO gives the work its grand luxe treatment—no stronger cast could be found. The role of Inman seems made for local hero Nathan Gunn, which it sort-of was. He embodies the tormented hero with pathetic energy and painful sympathy. Mezzo Isabel Leonard sings Ada, a soaring, intimately understood portrait of a lady. Their duets under the stars of Orion define and fulfill an improbable romance. Emily Fons, also a mezzo, is the rough-edged, tough Ruby. Her aria, "My Only Teacher," touches our hearts.

As Teague, the implacable leader of the Home Guard, Jay Hunter Morris radiates cold enmity. Among the large cast, Kevin Burdette, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Roger Honeywell especially distinguish themselves, as do the many apprentice artists in lesser roles. And not to forget Deborah Nansteel's runaway slave, Lucinda, in a critical scene with Inman.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya's orchestra projects Higdon's powerful score with passionate intensity, Susanne Sheston leads the fine choruses, and the production team, under director Leonard Foglia, offers a stage picture that knocks you back. A tangle of beams and planks from scenic designer Robert Brill frames the action, assisted by Brian Nason's intricate lighting plan and Elaine J McCarthy's frankly brilliant projection designs. David C Woolard provides appropriate costuming.

Ultimately in this more-than-memorable Cold Mountain, Higdon and Scheer, with Frazier, pay homage to the tenacity of the human spirit. I think of the closing lines of Beckett's The Unnamable: "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."

Cold Mountain
8 pm Wednesday, Aug. 5;
Friday, Aug. 14; Monday, Aug. 17 & 24;
Saturday, Aug. 22. $31-$300
Santa Fe Opera House
301 Opera Drive,
986-5900