MUSIC | Minnesota Opera premieres an edgy “Silent Night”

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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.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.

One thought on “MUSIC | Minnesota Opera premieres an edgy “Silent Night”

  1. Twice in my life, I have experienced the rare opportunity of witnessing the birth of a new opera, both by Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center of the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN. The first was the “futuristic” yet all too real and horrifying Handmaiden’s Tale. As a professional stagehand, I was afforded the rare opportunity to experience every performance, backstage, as even the professional actors and chorus could not hide their raw emotions and tears. The future was both too clear, and yet not quite here. I told everyone to see that opera, a once in a life-time opportunity and most unforgettable experience. Although it caused nightmares among many, it was worth the artistry of telling the tale. I think the days the planes stopped flying after the 9/11 horrors is the closes most of us have to experiencing the eerie and unexpected silence in the air, when nobody knows what will happen next.

    Silent Night is the second world premiere I have seen by the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway. This time, I was an audience member, carried into the past to the time of hand-to-hand combat, during World War I, during the time when soldiers might see the humanity in the faces of the enemy they were called upon to shoot.  Although I had heard the story about the Christmas Eve of 1914, when soldiers dropped their arms, a truce was called, and brother to brother met in the middle of the battle field, it was never clear to me if it were a nice story, wishful thinking, or the truth of the miracle of peace made present among us during one of the most horrific wars the world has known. 

    Silent Night is based on true experiences that happened along the frontlines at various places dispersed among areas the battles continued. Each country threatened court martial of the participants, but to do so would make the acts of insubordination known to the public and decrease the morale of the fighting men. Therefore the participants were punished by separation from each other in hopes that the story would die with their deaths. The historically documented facts survived throughout various countries in letters sent home, diaries, and front pages articles written in small town and large city papers. Books have been written, and now an opera.

    I commend all of the performers on brilliant singing and phenomenal acting. Individual hearts and armies were torn by divided feelings about the truces. I learned that Christmas Eve wasn’t the only truce during WWI. At various times, the officers agreed on truces so the dead could be retrieved and buried. This opera clearly portrayed the horrors of war between human beings, torn by personal choices, individual expectations, forced service, allegiance to home and country, hopes of glory, and desires for peace. 

    One thing of note is the remembrance of the roles of women in this opera, even though only two women were actually on stage. The obvious is Christmas being the time to remember the intimacy of Mother and Child, whether or not one believes in the divinity of Christ. The second is that the opera begins as an opera within an opera, when the performance is interrupted to share that war has been declared by Germany, Nikolaus Sprink, performed by William Burden, is taken off the stage to go to war, and Anna Sorensen, his female colleague and companion, performed by Karin Wolverton, is left behind.   The third is two brothers from Scotland, performed by John Robert Lindsey and Michael Nyby, go to war.  Letters continue to their mother thanking her for the gifts she sends, and both names are signed, although only one son survives. The fourth is the French Lieutenant Audebert, performed by Liam Bonner, whose loyalty is torn between service to his men and country and the desire to be with his pregnant wife, performed by Angela Mortellaro.  Then there are the numerous letters sent home to loved ones on all sides.

    Finally, the role of opera singer, Anna Serensen, is beautifully created to show the dichotomy of Christmas being celebrated with all its trimming as she arranges for Nikolaus Sprink to be released from the frontlines in order to perform one day and for them to be together for one night. The dramatic tension is heightened when he insists on returning to the frontline, because he has promised his men that he will sing for them on Christmas and because it may be the last Christmas for many of them. 

    Silent Night is based on the screenplay by Christian Carion for the movie Joyeux Noel. Creating the opera Silent Night was the vision of Dale Johnson, MN Opera’s Artistic Director, as brought to fruition by Kevin Puts, score, and Mark Campbell, libretto. Although I was first completely saddened by the choice to not include the Christmas carol, Silent Night, which I was looking forward to hearing in multiple languages, I think I have a better understanding of that artistic choice. By the absence of the song, one is left with the reality that Silent Night, the opera, is more about the night the skies were silent than about any particular faith, nationality, or culture. The opera is about the horrors of war and the desire for peace among all.

    Tickets are available through http://www.mnopera.org/ or by calling the Ticket Office at 612-333-6669 Mon.-Fri., 9am-6pm. Performances continue through November 20, 2011.  

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