Creating a new opera is one of the more daunting artistic endeavors imaginable. At least the team behind Silent Night, composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, started out with a story line that was like a softball pitch right over the plate: the remarkable true tale of the Christmas truce of 1914, when Scottish, French and German troops stepped out of their dank, vermin-infested trenches to spend one evening together as normal human beings.
The question then becomes: how well do these creators hit the ball, in assembling a unified production of palpable characterization, dramatic flow and solid musical structure?
Musically, Silent Night is a strong work. Kevin Puts is a skilled technician who has created a score of depth and rich texture. Like Benjamin Britten, he's able to move seamlessly from soaring lyricism to brittle dissonance, depending on the dramatic circumstance. He can even combine styles, as when he welds a broad hymn tune to a polychromatic backdrop.
Europe's best and worst
The drama itself also gets off to a powerful start, with a tableau in Rococo costume and music that quite brilliantly imitates Mozart. This opening opera scene within a scene is brutishly interrupted by a German officer, barking out the announcement of war. It's a stark contrast of the height of European culture versus its basest instincts.
The climax of the action is, logically, the truce itself, which occurs a little over halfway through the opera, at the end of the first of two acts. This structure leaves an entire act to serve as the denouement— a strategy that allows for an enrichment of the relationships between the characters and adds complexity to the plot. But it also raises some difficulties.
One of the central figures is a German opera singer named Nikolaus Sprink, who has been conscripted. Almost absurdly, he is reunited with his fellow opera singer and lover Anna during the Christmas truce. Exhausted by war, they simply walk across no man's land and into French territory. Presumably, they live happily ever after.
A "'quiet' outpost
But the great, hideous juggernaut of war reduces such gestures of humanity as a Christmas truce, love and even religion to irrelevance. The howling monster was barely scratched by these petty annoyances. I'm not sure that this was the opera's intended message, but it was amplified for me by another quirk in the libretto.
When the French high staff learned of the ad hoc truce, it decided to re-deploy the troops, on the assumption that they would not fight as fiercely against the men that they had shared holiday champagne with. One French officer, it was announced, would be sent to a quiet French outpost, Verdun.
Verdun, of course, turned out to be hell on earth, the greatest bloodbath that humankind had imposed upon itself up to that time. That mammoth ten-month battle produced more than 900,000 casualties, including a quarter of a million dead. The Allies prevented the Germans from breaking through to Paris, but after the carnage concluded, the front lines hadn't shifted at all.
Only the history-savvy in the audiences would have known this, and so Puts and Campbell seem to have missed a big opportunity for an ironic twist. A little work in the libretto would fix this oversight.
Overall, Silent Night is a very effective new opera that could be made even better with some judicious tinkering. I would like to have heard some kind of epilogue to tie up the loose ends. But the drama exudes a raw energy that doesn't shy away from the harrowing circumstances of war, without resorting to overt emotional manipulation.
It seems fitting— and, let us hope, prescient— that this production marks the debut of the Opera Company's new brand as "Opera Philadelphia." The large and effective production seemed to spare little expense; the casting was superb; and the Minnesota Opera conductor Michael Christie, who debuted the work, created a taut and memorable theatrical experience.♦
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.