The audience leaving the theater on Sunday afternoon, was remarkably subdued, but rather than being an indication of flaws in the opera’s performance it surely indicated its success. For Silent Night is not an easy piece to watch, and by the end we are shaken to our very depths. Since we already know the tragic outcome of the forays over the bunkers, the generation of young men wiped out by this ‘war to end all wars’ there’s a brooding sense of film noir which permeates the entire work, even the opening scene set in the glamour of the Berlin opera house as international singers perform their duet. The work’s relevance today is perhaps what shakes us to our core since today’s world is often cast in fatalistic and menacing tones.
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 commissioned by Minnesota Opera. It had its premier close to Armistice day in 2011 and its ten productions since that date has made its success unprecedented. Artistic director, Larry Hancock, is not afraid to bring new works to Opera San Jose. In 2015 he programmed a stunning world premier of Mark Lanz Weiser’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. With an outstanding resident company to draw from, joined by several guest singers who have worked with each other before, the interplay of characters is one of the strong points of this production. The Chorus, divided into the Scots, French and German, number over fifty men. Pulitzer prize winning Silent Night challenges the audience on many levels. For while the action is global in its tone this opera tells the story of the individual. From the romantic relationship between the German opera singers sung by resident tenor Kirk Dougherty and guest artist Julie Adams to the close and at times light-hearted friendship between Ponchel, played by the beguiling Brian James Myer and his superior Lt. Audebert, Ricardo Rivera, this opera is about how war devastates everyone, not just the soldier on the battlefield. As Larry Hancock says, “It’s about what it’s like to be a human being.”
Kevin Puts’ music explores new territory in the operatic repertoire. He’s a master at transforming source materials. A perfect example of this is in his flute concerto, recently performed at the Cabrillo Festival when he transforms the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K467. Silent Night is sung in five languages, English, German, French, Italian and Latin and uses the national style of music for each language from Bach to Richard Strauss to a Scottish jig. The vocal lines are very challenging for the performers, since they are not doubled by instruments, but on Sunday afternoon the performances were precise. Puts is a master orchestrator and he writes scores that are idiomatic to each instrument. Originally scored for sixty plus instruments Puts rescored the work of the forty-seven players who can squeeze into the orchestra pit at the California Theater. In this work he makes a lot of use of the extreme ranges with piccolo and contra bassoon very much to the fore while the harp has a prominent role throughout. There are many long interludes of instrumental music alone creating the effect of a film score. In fact the whole opera is very cinema graphic in its short scenes and very fast set changes. Stephen Kemp’s set took two years to design and construct and the costumes, comprising uniforms of Scotland, France and Germany, by Melissa Nicole Torchia, looked authentic, as did the rifles. Lighting designer, Pamila Z. Grey bathed the set in a murky darkness, so evocative, with an eerie apocalyptic glow heralding the opening of second act.
In the libretto by Mark Campbell raises the topic of the role of an artist in a battle zone, “Artists make bad soldiers” sings a German officer, but in the end it’s music that brings the soldiers together in the Christmas Eve truce. As the snow descends on the final moments of the work, the strings tremble, the light fades and the audience is left to contemplate the wasteland and the wasted lives.