As I write this, leaders from around the world are marching down the Champs-Élysées in Paris under a canopy of umbrellas in the rain, gathered to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the peace that ended the First World War.
Across the Atlantic the night before, the Washington National Opera (WNO) presented Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Silent Night at the Kennedy Center to a spirited ovation.
Based on the remarkable true story of a series of Christmastime ceasefires between combatant trenches along the Western Front in 1914, Silent Night was presented by the WNO in time to mark the centennial of the Great War’s end (November 11) with a hopeful ode to the commonalities among us, lest the divisions we create lead to further tragedy.
closes November 25, 2018
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An original production of the Wexford Festival Opera in partnership with The Atlanta Opera and The Glimmerglass Festival, Silent Night leads and lands with its encompassing message but regrettably isn’t very thrilling or memorable along the way.
The story is about a spontaneous Christmas Eve truce among French, Scottish and German soldiers facing each other across a No Man’s Land near the Belgian border. Mark Campbell’s libretto is mostly sung in English, French and German, to music that evokes the differing national styles.
The opera playfully begins with the classical conception of another opera set in Berlin featuring celebrated performers Anna Sorensen (soprano Raquel Gonzalez) and Nikolaus Sprink (tenor Alexander McKissick). A German soldier enters and announces that the Fatherland is at war, effectively cutting the performance short and sending Sprink to the front lines as a draftee.
The singers are also lovers and their story is the focus of the drama. Additional storylines include that of Jonathan Dale (tenor Arnold Livingston Geis), a young, bitter boy from Scotland who follows his gung-ho brother to war, and Lt. Audebert (baritone Michael Adams) and his valet Ponchel (baritone Christian Bowers) on the French lines. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov plays a critical role as the weary German commander Lt. Horstmayer, a man who wistfully tells his French counterpart and antagonist that he honeymooned in Paris before the war.
One thing ideal about incorporating all these languages is that I can create more conflict if they can’t speak with each other. – Silent Night librettist Mark Campbell
The score, conducted with dash by Nicole Paiement, the founder of San Francisco’s Opera Parallele, balances steely expressiveness with sentimental lyricism.
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Some of the more effective scenes are performed by the ensemble: groups of men stupidly chanting patriotic anthems on the way to war; sung snatches of conversation; a candlelight vigil.
The singers are all either alumni or current members of the WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Among them, Bogdanov, Bowers, McKissick and baritone Kenneth Kellogg stood out.
Plaudits to the gripping production design, especially Erhard Rom’s tiered set which allowed viewers to effectively see the action in three trenches simultaneously, the projection and scrim work framing the scenes with battle smoke and other ephemera, Robert Wierzel’s demonstrative lighting and Victoria Tzykun’s distinguished costume design.
Speaking about the compulsions that led to the tragedy of the 1914-1918 war in Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron warned Sunday that “the old demons” have been resurfacing. As if he had Silent Night in mind, he told those gathered under dark clouds at the Arc de Triomphe that “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying, ‘our interest first, who cares about the others?’ ”
The names of the millions of military service members who lost their lives during the conflict—projected as rolling bookends to the opera—are a memorial to the devastating results of that indifference.
Silent Night. Music by Kevin Puts. Libretto by Mark Campbell. Directed by Tomer Zvulun. Conducted by Nicole Paiement. Set and projection design by Erhard Rom. Lighting design by Robert Wierzel. Costume design by Victoria Tzykun. With Raquel Gonzalez, Alexander McKissick, Michael Hewitt, Kenneth Kellogg, Arnold Livingston Geis, Hunter Enoch, Hannah Hagerty, Michael Adams, Norman Garrett, Timothy J. Bruno, Christian Bowers, Aleksey Bogdanov, Patrick Cook, Joshua Conyers and the Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Produced by Washington National Opera. Presented in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
I wonder why the opera ‘Silent Night’ didn’t include the Christmas song ‘Silent Night’? According to the history of the event this song was involved.
M. Lodean says
It’s a shame that Silent Night misses the mark, because the story is powerful. (Incidentally, there are several fantastic children’s books about this event, which adults may appreciate even more.) These soldiers might have been “stupidly chanting patriotic anthems,” but so many of them were just kids–a huge number not yet 20 years old. And even those who were older … it was a different world back then. The last major war the continent had experienced was during Napoleon’s time, and everyone had regained some innocence. There was a general idea across Europe that the good and right would win, and that the war would actually get rid of a bunch of louses on both sides. In the beginning, the war was not unwelcome. Even the great novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling was naive about war; when his only son, age 16, was not allowed to join up due to poor eyesight, Kipling was convinced that he needed to find a way around this, that it was important for his son to take part, to come home a hero. Kipling succeeded, and his son was enlisted by age 17. But he never came home a hero–he never came home at all. Kipling was devastated for the rest of his days. He is the one responsible for choosing the words on the remembrance stone at the entrance to many Commonwealth cemeteries: “Their name liveth for evermore,” and he came up with the wording for the gravestones of unidentified Commonwealth soldiers: “Known Unto God.” He also wrote this: “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
When I visited the site of the Christmas truce this past summer, I felt like I was walking on sacred ground (as the reviewer says, the truce took place in multiple locations, though the one that is most famous is in Comines-Warneton, near to Ypres, in Belgium). In 2014, to mark the 100-year anniversary of the truce, the Union of European Football Associations put up a new statue of a soccer ball, and many people stop there. But if you make a right and keep going uphill on the dirt road, you will come to the original marker, a wooden cross which says “The Khaki Chums Christmas Truce.” Then if you go back the way you came but continue past the soccer ball statue, there is a small Commonwealth cemetery. Walking along the rows of graves, I saw some with death dates of December 23 and December 24, 1914–and then no more until January 2, 1915. And I couldn’t decide which was worse: to have never experienced the Christmas truce, or to have laughed and sang and kicked around a ball with “the enemy,” only to be killed by one of them a week later.