by SOPHIE KERMAN
The Minnesota Opera‘s world premiere production of Silent Night – opening this Saturday for a limited run at the Ordway – fights both an artistic and an ideological battle. First, it takes a stand for the continued relevance and importance of new opera. Second, it makes the case that some of the most effective anti-war arguments come not from staged brutality, but from showing the ways that war isolates and estranges individuals from one another. On both fronts, the production meets with unconditional success. Based on the true story of Christmas Eve, 1914, when French, Scottish and German officers negotiated a temporary truce, the opera infuses this story with an emotional power and resonance that is rare, not only in opera, but in any theater at all.
One warning: this may not be an opera for beginners. Composer Kevin Puts writes some sublimely beautiful music, but he uses a tonal structure that may be off-putting to newbies – in other words, don’t expect catchy melodic hooks or clear divisions between aria (song) and recitative (sung dialogue). Instead, he uses a massive 67-piece orchestra (conducted by Michael Christie) to build textured layers of sound that provide an ominous contrast to the longing and nostalgia expressed by Mark Campbell‘s libretto. It is a testament to the skill of both Puts and Campbell that the opera never degrades into melodrama or self-pity. The tragedy of war, they seem to say, is in just how stark and unforgiving it can be.
All three sides of this war – the Scots, the Germans and the French – have equal stage time and equally compelling personal narratives. Jonathan Dale (tenor John Robert Lindsey) wishfully invents the truth in letters to his mother, while French Lieutenant Audebert (baritone Liam Bonner) imagines the newborn son he has not yet seen. Andrew Wilkowske is a particularly warm presence as Audebert’s aide-de-camp Ponchel, always ready with a pot of coffee. On the German side, conscripted opera singer Nikolaus Sprink (tenor William Burden) uses song as a vehicle toward promoting a temporary peace. The only real drawback of showing the humanity on all sides of war is a practical one: none of the main characters gets quite enough time for the audience to connect as much as we might like. (On the other hand, that may be exactly the point, we are prevented from becoming partisan in any direction.)
It is rare to see an opera with so few women (only two: Anna Sørensen, Sprink’s lover, and Madeleine, Audebert’s wife). Soprano Karin Wolverton in particular provides a beautiful contrast to the all-male chorus, singing some striking duets with Burden and a stunning Act I finale of Dona Nobis Pacem. But the majority of men on stage – and with a cast of nearly 70, this is a very strong majority – actually becomes an asset to the opera, creating the sense of a fully-populated world. Under Eric Simonson‘s smart stage direction, this world is constantly alive and in motion without feeling visually overwhelming or overcrowded.
One of the challenges of new opera is that it presents unforeseen artistic hurdles, since there are no prior productions to use as points of comparison. Set designer Francis O’Connor has met this challenge head-on, thinking outside the box to create an astounding set that rotates in two directions and splits apart to adapt to scenes in all three enemy trenches, as well as the Kronprinz’s palace. And the lighting and projections (Marcus Dilliard and Andrzej Goulding) are frankly breathtaking. The use of light and shadow, combined with the different configurations of the set, creates a sense of depth that I have never seen before on stage.
From its very first moments, when the music is silenced to deliver the news of the coming war, to its understated and gut-wrenching conclusion, Silent Night challenges stereotypical notions of traditional opera. Through its innovative style and staging, this is the kind of artistic experience that proves just how much opera is still capable of achieving – not only musical excellence, but the ability to make palpable both the loneliness of war and the potentially devastating consequences of looking an enemy in the eyes.
[For more information on the process of developing and staging the opera, visit the Minnesota Opera’s Youtube channel.]