One hundred years ago today – at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month – what we know as World War I came to an end, with tens of millions of soldiers and civilians dead and the Old World of Europe in tatters. In his opera Silent Night, composer Kevin Puts suggests this giant canvas by focusing his paintbrush on an exceedingly small one – the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914, when many still thought the war would last no more than another month.
The opera was commissioned in 2011 as an adaptation of the film Joyeaux Noel, with then first-time operamaker Puts and experienced librettist Mark Campbell taking up the plot and characters and running with them from there. They give us a rich musical tapestry of three different groups of soldiers – German, French and Scottish – who participate in one such truce along the Western Front by laying down their arms, sharing a few laughs, chocolates and handshakes and eventually, we know, returning to the business of slaughtering each other.
Silent Night, which won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012, is being presented by Washington National Opera in the Kennedy Center’s relatively intimate Eisenhower Theater, now through Nov. 25. An ambitious production in several ways, it was originally created by the Wexford Festival Opera in partnership with The Atlanta Opera and The Glimmerglass Festival.
Far and away, Puts’ greatest achievement in Silent Night is his orchestral score, more cinematic than operatic – which no doubt helps this opera find and please a wide audience. With few to no static arias, the emphasis here is on storytelling, even visual storytelling, and (perhaps with a nod to Joyeux Noel) that typically is the world of cinema. From the intense jabs, slashes and growls of a breathless battle to the lovely golden light of Christmas dawn, music tells the story in our ears even more powerfully than in our eyes.
Arguably the opera’s single most fascinating, and satisfying, orchestral moment comes in Act II, when the officers in charge agree to extend the truce so they can give their dead a proper burial, as happened in some places along the front in 1914. While each unit begins taking care of its own dead, music leads us toward understanding they are actually burying all the fallen together. It is a remarkable moment, one that could never happen watching the burial in silence.
Still, Silent Night is opera not symphony. As in the film, Puts and specifically Campbell choose to have the three military components sing in their own languages, with a dash of Latin for a shared religious service. As a side benefit to sheer authenticity, this makes for some humorous twists, as soldiers who speak bits of this or that step in to translate for those who don’t. It also produces tender moments, as when the German officer admits in French to his French counterpart that his wife is from Marseilles and that they spent their honeymoon near where the Frenchman lives in Paris.
After the “quick diversion” – an opening Mozart-style grand opera in Berlin the night the war is announced – Puts serves up a believable, natural vocal style that quickly finds acceptance as real conversation. His writing for voice is flexible as well, able to smoothly capture the bored chatter of soldiers in their trenches, the touching sentiments of men remembering women they loved back home and the seething anger of watching a brother or a best friend killed only feet away.
Ukrainian baritone Aleksey Bogdanov leads the cast as the German officer in charge, a “good German” who struggles more than his counterparts with the conflict of duty to wage war with the inclination to make peace. Bogdanov shares with the rest of the cast a connection to WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, and the briefest glance at his credits shows how busy (and versatile) a performer he has been ever since.
Baritones Michael Adams and Norman Garrett shine as the French and Scottish officers, Adams handed the additional dramatic gift of a wife back home who is close to giving birth. Lest we think it’s an opera for baritones only, there are two tenors with ample stage time, Arnold Livingston Geis as the Scotsman who vows vengeance after seeing his brother killed and Alexander McKissick as the Berlin opera star who finds himself drafted after the opera’s opening scene.
Truth is, this final plot element provides one of Silent Night’s only questionable stylistic decisions. It is the love story between opera star and his leading lady, skillfully sung by soprano Raquel Gonzales, that keeps inserting “opera singing” into these otherwise natural surroundings, long after the action has moved from the Berlin stage to a German chalet near the battlefield, and finally to the battlefield itself.
You might say a lot happens during Silent Night – or you might say very little happens, especially during the weaker second act. Director Tomer Zvulun keeps his focus tight, on the individual characters and their moment-by-moment emotional journeys. The opera becomes, again much like a film, a series of vignettes, each adding to the impact of the whole. A personal favorite concerns French officer Audebert getting a haircut in his bunker while listening to his barber (delightfully portrayed by baritone Christian Bowers) go on about his mother living nearby and how she brews even more perfect coffee than he does.
All involved in the look of this production deserve praise. It’s a three-layer tableaux of bunker-atop-bunker-atop-bunker that lets each set of combatants have its scenes and its say, separate in their supposed havens when not together (with dark irony) in the No Man’s Land where they also kill each other. Set and projection designer Erhard Rom works wonders blending the projections with live action, which can be a distraction if handled less masterfully.
Nicole Paiement, a veteran of this production elsewhere, conducts Silent Night with spirit and precision, an achievement that seems all the more impressive since the original Puts score was “re-orchestrated” for fewer instruments to fit into smaller venues like the Eisenhower. The fact that nothing sounds or feels missing is a testament to how well that, like everything else about this moving In Memorium, was handled from the start.
Production photos by Teresa Wood