Considering the global unrest and relentless bloodshed that have marred the last decade, an anomalous historic precedent like the Christmas Truce of 1914 can feel like an utterly implausible fairytale popularized by pacifistic idealists naïve enough to believe that individual decency could prevail over international jingoism. And yet the miraculous did occur, no matter how briefly, along WWI’s Western Front when groups of opposing forces set aside their weapons for a holiday respite from combat. While some armies simply observed a period of silence from their trenches, others openly fraternized in the normally deadly No Man’s Land. In some instances enemies even agreed to a respectful burial of the dead or, less solemnly, skirmishes of football. These remarkable events form the basis for Silent Night, an absolutely soul-stirring new production from the Minnesota Opera now making its world premiere at the Ordway Center.
Though reports of the Christmas Truce of 1914 were initially suppressed by military leaders, recent years have brought a rediscovery, particularly through the 2005 film, Joyeux Noël. Recognizing the resounding benignancy at the story’s core, the Minnesota Opera selected the film as the basis for Silent Night, the latest production from the company’s innovative New Works Initiative. Humanistic undertones aside, however, some might question just how well the film’s multi-character narrative and unconventional plotting can be translated into an opera. As it turns out, both factors are surmounted in sublime fashion.
To fully appreciate this achievement, one must begin with the libretto by Mark Campbell. Adhering closely to Christian Carion’s original screenplay for Joyeux Noël, the librettist focuses on each character’s own distinctive sense of grief, whether expressed as guilt over a fallen brother or the simple craving for one blissful night of uninterrupted sleep. These yearnings are memorably expressed in a verbal mosaic of English, French, German, Italian, and Latin. Yet while each voice is unique, they are united by an empathetic longing.
What really imbues fervor to the production, though, is a landmark score from composer Kevin Puts. Already a widely celebrated talent in the classical world, Silent Night marks Puts’ debut opera. As such, Puts couldn’t make a more stunning first impression, launching into the opening of Act 1 with a wildly spiraling panorama of sound that culminates in an explosive climax. In the aftermath, as fraught silence descends on the battlefield, Puts settles into a suspenseful adagio capable of transitioning swiftly to lavishly layered melodies. Through it all, conductor Michael Christie leads the Minnesota Opera Orchestra with characteristic deftness.
Vocally Silent Night relies heavily on the commanding baritones of Craig Irvin (as the German Lieutenant Horstmayer), Gabriel Preisser (as the Scottish Lieutenant Gordon), and Liam Bonner (as the French Lieutenant Audebert). The interplay of these three talented singers - from tersely delivered formalities to the affectionate cordialities of unlikely friends – is endlessly compelling, their tonal synchronicity suggesting a private sympathy that runs deeper than the capricious ideologies of their clashing nations.
While the three lieutenants provide perspective from positions of leadership, another view can be found in a subplot involving two internationally renowned opera singers and lovers, Nikolaus Sprink and Anna Sorensen. Tenor William Burden had been slated to perform the former role until a case of laryngitis nearly scuttled his participation. Thankfully the last minute enlistment of frequent Minnesota Opera performer Brad Benoit (who sang from offstage while Burden enacted the part) managed to commendably rescue the role.
But it is the part of Anna Sorensen, as performed by soprano Karin Wolverton, who walked away with the spotlight. With her preternaturally ethereal tone soaring above the fray, one cannot help but agree with the enraptured soldier who equates Wolverton’s voice to that of an angel. Indeed, no single moment allows more intense poignancy than Act 1’s closing aria wherein Wolverton’s emotive register lifts the pathos to heartbreaking heights.
No less striking is the innovative stage design, an imaginatively rendered battleground envisioned by Francis O’Connor. Revolving around a massive rotatable No Man’s Land, the moveable set piece ingeniously allows for shifting views into each army’s encampment. Stage director Eric Simonson takes advantage of the flexible design by seamlessly transitioning between enemy quarters, each differentiated by the period specific military uniforms designed by Karin Kopischke.
Furthering the immersive atmosphere is a vibrant lighting display by Marcus Dilliard capable of shifting from the chaos of battle to the tranquility of evening. Andrzej Goulding’s captivating projection design adds yet another dimension to the stage, allowing for a transformative backdrop that can represent anything from a foreboding barricade of ominous flags to the restful solace of a snowy sky.
Without succumbing to cloying sentimentality, this latest creation from the Minnesota Opera achingly conveys the powerful resiliency of kindness and mercy even in the trenches of war. As such, Silent Night stands as a heartfelt hymn to our common humanity.
Silent Night runs at the Ordway Center through November 20th.