By Janelle Gelfand
CINCINNATI – Near the end of Act I in the opera Silent Night, a soprano who is visiting the Western Front sings an a cappella setting of “Dona Nobis Pacem.” She is surrounded by soldiers gazing up at her, an angel in the midst of unthinkable horrors. It is a moment of ethereal beauty, and as she finishes, bombs are heard in the distance.
That was one of many indelible scenes in the deeply moving new opera by Kevin Puts to a libretto by Mark Campbell. It was commissioned by Minnesota Opera, where it premiered in 2011, and co-produced with Opera Philadelphia, Cincinnati Opera, and Fort Worth Opera. Cincinnati’s production was the culmination of a community-wide observation of the onset of the Great War, a series of programs and events called “Cincinnati Remembers World War I.”
Serendipitously, Cincinnati Opera mounted the opera as part of its Summer Festival season in Cincinnati’s Music Hall on July 10 and 12 – within days of the centennial of the Sarajevo event that triggered World War I.
Silent Night tells the true story of the Christmas truce of 1914, when soldiers came out of their trenches on the Western Front to celebrate Christmas Eve together in no-man’s land. They shared family photos and brandy, played football, observed Mass, and buried their dead. The next day, the carnage began again.
The two-act opera, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012, is based on the 2005 French movie Joyeux Noël.
The Cincinnati production brought together a superb ensemble of singing actors, several of whom had originated their roles in Minnesota. Despite the large, mostly male cast representing the troops of Scotland, France, and Germany, the creators managed to give depth and believability to their characters. Also collaborating was the director and dramaturg Eric Simonson, part of the team who had helped to see the work to fruition and whose staging was riveting from beginning to end.
It is a story that is at once sweeping and intimate. The opera unfolds cinematically, in part due to Francis O’Connor’s stunning scenic design and video projections designed by Andrzej Goulding. A raised platform representing no-man’s land was encircled by the bunkers of each army, which rotated on a turntable. Front and rear projections of grim landscapes and, in the end, slow-moving boxcars, added to the cinematic feel as the opera progressed.
Silent Night is the first opera by the 42-year-old American composer, who was born in St. Louis and grew up in Alma, Mich. His multi-faceted orchestral score turns on a dime from battle scenes – a cacophony of dissonances, edgy intervals and machine-gun sounds – to moments of serene, lyrical beauty. Puts’ musical palette has echoes of Britten, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and even Debussy in a sunrise scene, lush with strings. His score may represent the direction in which American opera seems to be headed – a theatrical style that draws from many musical influences. But what sets it apart is that it is exceedingly well crafted. Puts succeeds in capturing the drama while bringing emotion to each moment. Leading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit, David Charles Abell illuminated every detail in a polished collaboration.
The prologue opens with an opera-within-an-opera. Opera singers Anna Sorensen (Erin Wall) and Nikolaus Sprink (Thomas Blondelle) are performing a Mozartian opera (invented by Puts with startling authenticity), only to be interrupted by a German general announcing that war has broken out. The scene shifts to a Scottish church, where two brothers are enlisting, then to a Paris apartment, where Lt. Audebert, a role warmly sung by Phillip Addis, is saying goodbye to his pregnant wife.
Then the opera plunges into war. Marching armies crisscross the stage singing in three languages in an Ives-like merging of battle songs. A brutally choreographed depiction of battle is vivid enough to make the viewer flinch. It is matched in fierceness by the music. (Puts said in a panel discussion that he had watched parts of Saving Private Ryan for inspiration.)
In the battle’s aftermath, the French lieutenant, Audebert, wearily tabulates his dead and wounded while daydreaming about his wife back home, against an orchestral backdrop of glimmering beauty. A ravishing “Sleep Chorus” follows, as the exhausted soldiers put down their bedding in lightly falling snow. The excellent male chorus was prepared by Henri Venanzi. [Click for a video clip of the “Sleep” music, as performed by Minnesota Opera choristers.]
There are lighthearted moments, too. A charming aide-de-camp, Ponchel, “the best barber in Lens,” adds comic relief to these grim proceedings. Andrew Wilkowske gave a nuanced performance as Ponchel – who carries an alarm clock to remind himself when he used to have coffee with his mother. Perhaps because of this human touch, his eventual death is all the more poignant.
One challenge for the creators was the libretto, in English, French, and German. With the Latin Mass and Italian opera, that added up to five languages. Yet, even in multi-lingual ensembles, individual personalities shone through. The three lieutenants – Addis as the French Lt. Audebert, Gabriel Preisser as the Scottish Lt. Gordon, and Craig Irvin as the German Lt. Horstmayer – performed wonderfully in ensembles and brought engaging character and vocal heft to their considerable baritone roles.
There is also a love story between Sorensen and Sprink. Blondelle was ardent as the German opera singer, conscripted into the army, who angrily confronts his commanding officer. Wall sang radiantly as the strong-minded diva who conspires to join her man on the front and then convinces him to desert.
Unlike the film, the creative team avoided sentimentality. Only one moment came off as corny – a kind of “sing-off” between armies before the cease-fire. Campbell’s text is both economical and lyrical, and Puts’ settings are seamless. The singers are given ariosos that sometimes soar into imitations of folk songs, carols, prayers, and even a Schubertian art song. Father Palmer (Hugh Russell) holds Mass and sings Scottish folk songs to a bagpipe accompaniment. There is a fugue as the Germans decorate their bunker with Christmas trees.
After the cease-fire, the soldiers are disciplined for fraternizing and sent to new fronts, doomed to die. Kenneth Shaw was a formidable French general who punishes his soldiers – and, it turns out, his own son, Lt. Audebert – by sending them to Verdun.
In the end, soldiers read excerpts of their letters home as snow falls and, with the snowflakes, become images of drifting letters. The touch perfectly caught the pervading feeling of sadness and the futility of war.
Puts, who counts among his mentors Samuel Adler, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse, and, at Yale, Jacob Druckman, said he had never dreamed of writing opera before he was approached by Minnesota Opera’s artistic director Dale Johnson. But he felt he could do it because, he said, “I’ve always been into the epic sort of expression, and most of the time I’m limited by the constraints of the orchestral world…. In a lot of the pieces I’ve written, the symphonies and some of the concertos, there is a narrative quality, and also a lyrical quality.”
As the world continues to endure war, this remembrance of a single night 100 years ago resonates with audiences. Cincinnati was the fourth company to present Silent Night, and Puts said that it is slated for another half dozen, including its European premiere at Wexford Festival Opera, Oct. 24-Nov. 2, followed by performances at the Calgary Opera, Nov. 8-14; Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Feb. 21-March 1, 2015; and Opéra de Montréal, May 16-23.
Meanwhile, Puts and Campbell are putting finishing touches on their second collaboration, The Manchurian Candidate, a political thriller based on the 1959 book by Richard Condon. It will be premiered in March at Minnesota Opera.
[Note: This is an expanded version of a review that first appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer.]
Janelle Gelfand, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was named classical music critic for The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1993 and writes about arts and classical music for the paper. Find her articles and videos at cincinnati.com/arts.