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

By: Nov. 09, 2016
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.

Rom's three-tiered set gives a 360-degree view, simultaneously showing the action in each of the participant trenches during the war scenes; but it also leaves room for more intimate encounters, by having a panel drop in front of the unit set. Despite all the action that's going on--and there's lots of it--the stage never feels confused or overwhelming, but somehow fuses the multi-layers of action into a vigorous whole. This is not unlike the score.

Under the sure baton of maestro Nicole Paiement, Puts' polyphonic music builds layer upon layer. Look at the opera's opening: It goes from three intimate scenes that introduce major characters to a cacophony that represents the "glory" of battle as the remnants of the characters' normal lives begin disintegrating into the fruitlessness of war. First, there is the music for a pair of German opera singers at the Berlin opera (in a witty take on Mozart) followed by German nationalistic music. Then there are Scottish brothers leaving home amid talk of heroism, to Scottish battle songs. Finally, there is the French lieutenant whose pregnant wife feels abandoned by his call of duty, followed by a backdrop of a French cri de guerre. At this point, one can only guess what lies ahead for these people, but history tells us that it can be nothing good.

Indeed, even after the short-lived truce at the center of the piece (extended so that the dead may be buried) it's not all forgive-and-forget--the creators are too realistic for that--particularly for the Scot who lost his brother early in the story and has had to leave him on the battlefield. When the soldiers return to the business of war, they are crucified by their superiors for taking such [peaceful] matters into their own hands. It is all beautifully modulated in a way where nothing feels like an easy answer.

It's ostensibly an ensemble piece--especially in this production, where the different countries have their own layers of the set--but the pair of performers portraying the German opera singers somehow manage to steal the show, both through their acting and singing. Tenor David Blalock (Nikolaus) and soprano Ava Pine (Anna) have some of the composer's most beautiful vocal music, particularly her Schubert-inspired aria that ends Act I.

Other memorable members of the cast were the hearty baritone of Alexander Hajek as Lt .Gordon; the smooth vocalism of baritone Matthew Worth as Audebert, the French lieutenant; the charming portrayal of baritone Andrew Wilkowske as aide-de-camp Ponchel; tenor Jonathan Dale as the hang-dog Scot, Alexander Sprague, mourning his brother; and bass Tom Fox as the stuffy French general (who turns out to be Audebert's father).

As I exited the auditorium at intermission, I found myself walking behind the composer (Puts) and librettist (Campbell) of this stimulating, moving work, hearing them talk avidly about changes they wanted to make--to improve on what already seemed, to someone less intimately involved in the work, a modern classic.


SILENT NIGHT is a co-production with the Wexford Festival in Ireland and the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY.

Caption: The German camp, with David Blalock and Ava Pine, center. Photo: Jeff Roffman

Atlanta's SILENT NIGHT has additional performances on November 11th (in honor of Veteran's Day) and a matinee on the 13th.


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