It sounds like a heartwarming holiday story, all the more so because it’s true. On Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers facing each other on the Western Front laid down their arms and met as friends, sharing libations and holiday cheer. Silent Night, though—the new opera given its premiere Saturday night by the Minnesota Opera—is no Hallmark special. Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell treat the truce as exactly that: a rare interlude of good heart and good sense in the middle of a long, brutal world war.
The mood throughout is dark and elegaic. Program notes say that Puts’s style has been compared to that of John Adams and Philip Glass, but for this, his first opera, Puts goes nowhere near Einstein on the Beach or Nixon in China. Instead, he uses an Impressionist, often dissonant musical vocabulary that’s not quite authentic to the time period but not far off, either. Puts’s high-contrast score reminded me of Modris Eksteins’s book Rites of Spring, which argues that the tragic absurdity of World War I helped shape the dark contours of 20th century music and art. The score is a rich listen, under the deft baton of Michael Christie. I suspect this opera will have legs, and prove a feather in our collective local cap as an original commission by the Minnesota Opera.
(It’s worth noting that neither “Silent Night” nor any other popular Christmas carols are incorporated into the score. If that’s what you’re looking for, consider seeing All is Calm, an alternate telling of this story staged annually at the Pantages Theatre.)
The performers are well-cast and strong-voiced—with the unfortunate exception of William Burden, who was unable to sing his lead role as a German officer on Saturday night due to a sudden case of laryngitis; Brad Benoit heroically stepped in and sang the role from the wings. Vocally, the strongest impressions are made by Liam Bonner as a steel-throated French officer and Karin Wolverton as Burden’s warbling beau.
Francis O’Connor’s rotating set puts the performers in a sort of cyclorama, a tilted disc of No Man’s Land rotating in center stage as bunkers circle around it. A pre-show presenter’s promise that the battle scenes would be comparable in intensity to those in the film Saving Private Ryan was a bit exaggerated—this is an opera, after all—but Puts’s dark score, which often dwindles to interludes of eerie silence, is uncompromising in portraying the horrors of war. This is by no means a feel-good holiday show; rather, it’s a stark and powerful reminder that peace on earth and good will towards men is nothing to be taken for granted.
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