BWW Review: Austin Opera's SILENT NIGHT A Hard Look at The Unchanged Reality of War
Silent Night is an opera in two acts by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, based on the 2005 film Joyeux Noël, directed by Christian Carion and produced by Nord-Ouest Production. Commissioned by Minnesota Opera with co-producer Opera Company of Philadelphia, it opened on November 12, 2011 at the Ordway Theater, St. Paul Minnesota to great critical acclaim and standing-room-only houses for the entirety of its run. The opera is sung in English, German, French, Italian and Latin.
For the entirety of its run at the Minnesota Opera, where it was commissioned and premiered, it played to standing room only houses. SILENT NIGHT went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012, and while librettist Mark Campbell has written other operas, SILENT NIGHT is the first for which Kevin Puts (who was in attendance here in Austin at Saturday night's performance) composed the music.
Librettist Campbell notes, "'war is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person. When you see that the person you might be shooting has a child or a wife or has this life at home and they're just not the enemy, then it becomes very difficult if not impossible to sustain war." This statement is at the heart of SILENT NIGHT. Set in 1914, during the historical Christmas eve truce of World War I, SILENT NIGHT shows us that war is directed by men who can't see the humanity in those who've harmed them, and fought by those who understand the shared experiences of the painful struggle to survive.
After a quick prologue that reveals to us the lives of German opera singers (and lovers) Nicholas Sprink (Joseph Dennis) and Anna Sorenson (Hailey Clark), Scottish brothers William (Ben Edquist) and Jonathan (John Lindsey) and the French couple Lt. Audebert (David Adam Moore) and his pregnant wife, Madeleine (Cheryl Kaderli) we are transported into the rest of the first act, which takes place on the battleground and in the bunkers of the French, Scottish and German troops somewhere in Belgium near the French border. Bodies pile up in no man's land after a battle on the 23rd of December, including Jonathan's brother William, and, after an evening of assessing the damages and yearning for home, the soldiers on each side are greeted to a few gifts and some uplifting cheer on the 24th. On the same day, Nicholas is sent to perform with his lover Anna for the Kronprinz, and Anna refuses to leave Nicholas's side after the performance. She returns to the front alongside him. The Scottish soldiers enjoy the music of a bagpipe, and Nicholas responds with a song, after which he moves into no man's land in an attempt to create a truce among the three armies. The truce is successful and all the men come together in a mass led by the Scottish Father Palmer (Troy Cook) and the men create new bonds of friendship. As the night wears on, the truce does too, and on Christmas day, the troops take the bodies of their fallen from no man's land back to their bunkers. When news of the cease fire reaches headquarters, the Kronprinz and French General are incensed. The French unit is disbanded, the Scottish unit is shipped away and the German unit is deployed to Pomerania as punishment.
Timothy Myers conducts Kevin Puts complex score beautifully, and Erhard Rom's flawless set depicts the grim truth of WWI as we are greeted by a scrim with the names of those killed in battle. Each scene is introduced with a projected postcard and the three tiered set solves the problem of staging all sides in a war and gives us a full on view of each army's experience of this conflict. The use of a scrim throughout the entirety of several scenes, however, makes it difficult to connect with the characters. On the night I attended, the orchestra was too loud, and it made investing in these characters even harder. I'm sure there was superior singing happening, but from my seat, I was left to simply follow the story without experiencing the impact of a talented cast. Conor Hanratty has directed this piece with precision and clarity, which helped. Clark and Dennis rise to the top of this otherwise ensemble piece, as it should be, and their storyline is especially compelling. That said, baritone Craig Irvin as Lieutenant Horstmayer is a positively formidable presence. This is appropriate, as a German Jew with a French wife, he's subject to the moral dilemma of war more than any of the other characters. I appreciated the skillful nuance his performance provided.
Since this is Pulitzer Prize winning opera with a stunning score based on a poignant story, I expected to be more invested in the lives of these characters. I left feeling disappointed that I wasn't moved more deeply. As another review has noted, the piece feels more like a memorial than a piece of theatre. It's execution is excellent, the production values and direction are superior, but I left wanting to feel more connection - especially the connection one would expect from a piece based on the premise that a shared sense of humanity can stop a war, if only for a few days. Taking an informal poll of friends who also attended, our experiences turns out, were mixed. There were those who were moved, and those who weren't. Nonetheless, this is a formidable and beautifully executed production worthy of an evening at the opera.
Kevin Puts, Music
Mark Cambell, Libretto
Timothy Myers, Conductor
Conor Hanratty, Stage Director
Saturday, January 26, 2019 at 7:30 pm
Thursday, January 31, 2019 at 7:30 pm
Sunday, February 3, 2019 at 2:30 pm
The Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin, TX
Purchase Tickets and more information: austinopera.org
Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission