BWW Review: War Is Hell but the Puts-Campbell SILENT NIGHT Is a Wonder in Atlanta

BWW Review: War Is Hell but the Puts-Campbell SILENT NIGHT Is a Wonder in Atlanta
The German camp, with David Blalock
and Ava Pine, center. Photo: Jeff Roffman

If "satire is what closes on Saturday night" (according to the great playwright and wit George S. Kaufman), then contemporary opera is usually not far behind. That is, unless it's Kevin Puts' and Mark Campbell's SILENT NIGHT, which actually opened on Saturday night (this past weekend) at Atlanta's Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, in a moving new production by the company's General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun that doesn't go for the heart strings but gets there anyway.

The opening at the handsome Cobb Center--the Southeast premiere of a work that has been performed widely and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012--was a special one for many reasons. The audience took the opera immediately to heart--not simply because it opens with a scrim listing the 3000 Georgians who lost their lives in WWI, but because the work is filled with wonderful music and real people.

With characters you can grasp on to and music that illuminates, energizes, exalts and, yes, entertains at every turn, SILENT NIGHT is a model of what contemporary opera can do for audiences who think they can't get past the ABCs (AIDA, BOHEME and CARMEN) of traditional repertoire. With his sure hand, it's hard to believe that this is Puts' first opera, though he already had great success in chamber and orchestral music when the commission for the piece came along. (Indeed, his orchestral interludes in SILENT NIGHT are among the opera's most gorgeous creations and are the glue that holds the score together.) On the other hand, it's easy to see Campbell's experience in making the characters in a libretto come alive and giving the audience a clear reason to come back after the intermission.

Based on a French film, "Joyeux Noel," ("Merry Christmas") by Christian Carion, SILENT NIGHT has been a success from its first production at the Minnesota Opera--which commissioned it--in 2011, being awarded the Pulitzer the next year. The story of what was projected to be a short-livEd Battle and turned into a devastating war has moved audiences (and critics) in many productions in the US and Canada. The current version made its debut in 2014 at the Wexford Festival in Ireland, helmed by the endlessly creative director Zvulun and his excellent creative team, Erhard Rom (the smart scenic design), Robert Wierzel (the subtle lighting) and Vita Tzykun (the handsome costumes).

In some ways, the opera's title is a red herring, leading the audience to expect something more benign than it gets. No, it doesn't have to do with Christmas, except in the timing of its action, and, no, the famed traditional Yuletide carol doesn't make an appearance (though the composer adds a few of his own holiday songs to the mix). The Christmas part: It takes place in a Belgian battlefield near the French border in World War I, with its pinnacle being a spontaneous truce among German, French and Scottish combatants on Christmas Eve 1914. The truce is historical, by the way, though the opera's (and film's) plot is fiction.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.