In this time of international anxiety, given the United States of America is suffering through the presidency of Donald J. Trump, a man who spurns our long-time allies in favor of autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, Washington National Opera’s (WNO) decision to mount a production of Silent Night, an opera about the unsanctioned World War I Christmas Eve truce in 1914 on the Belgian front, is both timely and food for thought. Mark Campbell’s multi-lingual libretto interweaves the circumstances of three different groups of battling soldiers—French, Scottish, and German—in a seamless flow that is thoroughly engaging and intimate.
The music of Kevin Puts, a newcomer to the field of opera, is largely lyrical and easy on the ears of those who prefer the classic canon of the 19th century and earlier. Puts certainly plays to that score card by opening Silent Night in a prologue with an operatic scene at the Berlin Opera where Puts imitates Mozart, a rather risky first step which does nothing to ground the musical voice of Silent Night. Nonetheless, Puts was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012 and the world premiere at the Ordway Theater in Saint Paul, Minnesota (November 12, 2011) played to a sold out audience. WNO attributes this production of Silent Night to the Wexford Festival Opera in partnership with The Atlanta Opera and The Glimmerglass Festival.
This reviewer saw the November 14th, 2018, performance of this two-hour opera with a twenty-five-minute intermission. When the stage went dark after Act I, it seemed possible that was the complete opera since the French, Scottish, and German soldiers had managed to establish their truce for Christmas Eve.
What’s more, the German opera singers—soprano Anna Sorensen (Raquel Gonzalez) and tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Alexander McKissick), who were parted on stage by the sudden appearance of a soldier announcing the start of WWI (and the tenor was conscripted into the German army), had been brought back together (and they were a romantically engaged couple off stage) by the German crown prince at a chalet not far from the trenches where Sprink was fighting.
However, other matters remained unresolved had the opera ended at the intermission. In the Scottish camp are two brothers, met first in the prologue scene—the older William Dale (bass-baritone Hunter Enoch) coaxed the younger Jonathan Dale (tenor Arnold Livingston Geis) to enlist. Immediately, William is shot and Jonathan is forced to leave his brother to die in the no-man’s land. Upon receiving a package of gloves from home, Jonathan writes to his mother thanking her for what she has sent to each son but not mentioning that William is dead.
During the truce, the Scottish Father Palmer (bass Kenneth Kellogg) conducts a mass in the no man’s land for all the soldiers while Jonathan searches for and finds his brother’s body. Jonathan adamantly declares revenge just as Father Palmer concludes the mass and enjoins the men to “go in peace” while in the distance bombs explode at other battle scenes. Here the action of Act I ends.
In the French camp, the young lieutenant Audebert (baritone Michael Adams) bemoans to his aide-de-camp Ponchel (baritone Christian Bowers) the loss of his wallet with a photo of his beloved wife Madeleine (mezzo-soprano Hannah Hagerty) whom we meet in the prologue scene. Librettist Campbell knows the important psychological impact of the audience actually meeting the Lieutenant’s wife because the audience never sees her again. She, however, is mentioned numerous times because she is pregnant with their first child and the Lieutenant has had no word from her and he is worried.
Suffice it to say, that Act II resolves many things—the German opera singers steal away from the war by begging asylum with the French and the Scottish brother William Dales is buried. His brother Jonathan gets a partial opportunity to exact revenge. What Jonathan Dale doesn’t know is that the German soldier he kills is not German at all. He is the French aid-de-camp Ponchel who wanted to sneak home to see his mother who makes the best coffee in the world so he borrows a German uniform. While Ponchel is home, he finds out that Lieutenant Audebert is now the father of a little boy named Henri and all is well with Madeleine.
Erhard Rom’s scenic and projection designs are memorable. He stacks up the three separate camps so that at the beginning of Act I when all the soldiers sing in their own languages as the big battle rages, the scenic design with the singing creates a vibrating tower of babel. Here Puts’ music is powerful and this scene transitions into snow falling over the dead soldiers while a lullaby plays. The musical contrast is deeply moving. In this opera, Rom’s projections are usually connected to history. Before the opera begins and at other moments of closure, a rolling roster of names of the dead with year of death from Germany, France, and Great Britain are projected on a scrim. Other projections include postcards from these countries done in the style of the early 1900’s.
In this cast of all current and former WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, standout singers for this performance were Kenneth Kellogg as Father Palmer, Norman Garrett as Lieutenant Gordon, and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as Lieutenant Horstmayer (hard-nosed commanding officer to the opera singer Nikolaus Sprink).
WNO’s production was in time for the centennial celebration of the end of World War I and the US celebration of Veterans Day. The poignancy of avowed enemies putting aside their weapons to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ was an occasion, even for a Jew as the German Lieutenant Horstmayer was, to recognize what unites people versus what divides. How to hold on to that short duration of peace is the question then as it is now. Silent Night gives its audience hope in humankind.
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