Opera evokes grim beauty in break in the battle

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 14, 2011 - 9:25 AM

REVIEW: Minnesota Opera commissioned a work based on a real-life Christmas truce on the Western Front during World War I.

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John Robert Lindsey as Jonathan Dale comforts his fallen brother, William, who is sung by Michael Nyby.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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At the end of 1914, in a seemingly spontaneous outbreak of camaraderie during World War I, members of the opposing armies entrenched along the Western Front suspended hostilities to share food and drink, play soccer, bury their dead and celebrate the birth of the savior in whose name they'd been machine-gunning each other a short time earlier. As many as 100,000 men took part in this unofficial "Christmas truce," described by Arthur Conan Doyle as "one human episode amid all the atrocities."

Recounted in books, a BBC documentary, a feature film and, locally, in the Cantus-Theater Latté Da collaboration "All Is Calm," the truce has now spawned an opera, "Silent Night," commissioned by Minnesota Opera and premiered Saturday by the company at the Ordway Center.

Grimly beautiful, the piece is a significant addition to the repertoire and heralds the emergence of composer Kevin Puts as a force in American opera.

Based on Christian Carion's multilingual screenplay for his 2005 "Joyeux Noël," "Silent Night" inherits from the film a cinematic quality and with it a sentimental undertow, most conspicuous in the fictionalized love affair between opera singers: Nikolaus Sprink, a conscripted tenor-in-the-trenches, and Anna Sørensen, a headstrong soprano. Though useful dramatically, this amorous duo sometimes feels extraneous.

But librettist Mark Campbell and director Eric Simonson resist the screenplay's more egregious Hallmark tendencies. Campbell's text is terse and cogent; he knows how to convey the essentials and leave the heavy lifting to the composer.

Puts, the composer in question, seldom relaxes his grip on the listener. There is no emotion his writing cannot conjure. In the course of two hours he integrates an astonishing range of forms and styles: waltz and fugue, 18th century opera and 19th century song, a folk-like Scottish ditty (complete with bagpipes), atonality and more. At its best, as in the heartfelt choral lullaby of Act 1 or the shattering funeral march of Act 2, his music is as powerful as any being written today. "Silent Night" is, improbably, Puts' first opera; it shouldn't be his last.

Lavish by company standards, Minnesota Opera's production, which includes a violent battle scene that manages not to be hokey, is all one could wish. Francis O'Connor's rotating set is a marvel; Kärin Kopischke outfits three armies with evident aplomb; Marcus Dilliard's lighting and Andrzej Goulding's projections work hand in hand.

There's no premiere without its mishap. On Saturday, tenor William Burden, given top billing as Sprink, awoke with laryngitis. Burden lip-synched the role, which was sung heroically from the edge of the stage by the young Brad Benoit. (The company owes him, big time.)

As Anna, Karin Wolverton sings passionately, if not always without strain. The many male voices are well-differentiated: Troy Cook's Palmer, Andrew Wilkowske's Ponchel and the trio of lieutenants (Liam Bonner, Craig Irvin, Gabriel Preisser) merit special praise. Conductor Michael Christie balances his far-flung forces adroitly. The chorus deserves a bonus.

In the end, "Silent Night" is as much a political act as it is a work of art. Wearing their pacifism on their sleeves, its authors hope to change the world. Naive? Perhaps. But surely less naive than to suppose that peace will break out on its own.

  • SILENT NIGHT

    What: Adapted from the film "Joyeux Noel." Score by Kevin Puts, libretto by Mark Campbell. Directed by Eric Simonson; conducted by Michael Christie.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tue., Thu. & Sat. 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 20.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $20-$200. 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org.

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