A work crucial to the development and appreciation of opera as a relevant modern art form premièred on the East Coast to well-deserved acclaim at a legendary Philadelphia venue. From the first note out of the pit orchestra to the final strains of the last act, Silent Night, presented by Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, was a tour de force – from conception to execution.
Silent Night was commissioned by Minnesota Opera in 2011. Composer Kevin Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music, a stunning accolade for the American work. But make no mistake – Silent Night, with text by librettist Mark Campbell, was also a dramatic triumph, tackling a stirring incident in World War I history head on, with little sentiment and lots of grit.
The opera is based on a screenplay for the motion picture Joyeux Noël. It recounts the spontaneous ceasefire on Christmas Eve of 1914 between the Germans and the opposing French and Scottish forces in Belgium, near the French border. During the first act, enmity is replaced with empathy as soldiers, many far from home, lay down their weapons and choose to observe a night of peace instead of deadly combat. Ironically the temporary armistice was instigated by an opera singer called to fight, who was told he was ill-equipped to be a soldier. The soldiers come together to celebrate mass and sing carols. The next day they bury their dead from warring the previous day. When high command learns about the unsanctioned truce, the commanding officers and soldiers are reprimanded and punished for committing treasonous acts. All armies involved sought to then cover up the incident.
A co-production with Minnesota Opera, Opera Philadelphia’s Silent Night sounded like a contemporary opera but not necessarily a modern opera. The score offered musicality and warmth in spots. In passages it reminded me of a Strauss or a Debussy opera in its sensibilities. There were no great, sweeping arias. Nor was there ever such dissonance that seemed to be so fashionable, the kind of ear-splitting assault that made modern opera virtually inaccessible to many. It had many qualities of modern musical theater yet clearly was composed and voiced as an opera.
It used novel devices, too, some intrinsic to its composition while others were infused into the story as it moved to the stage. For instance, it’s the first opera I’ve ever seen that was written to be sung in three languages, sometimes simultaneously, with English subtitles. The German soldiers sang their parts in their native tongue, the French in theirs, and the Scottish soldiers in English.
Eric Simonson’s artful direction of the show evidenced a seamless theatrical vision wedded with technical sophistication. For instance, the video, sound, and lighting effects combined with a versatile set for a riveting simulation of a battlefield, bunkers, and even the chalet of the German Kronprinz. The orchestra, led by Michael Christie (newly appointed music director for the Minnesota Opera), was hugely impactful to the orchestra’s and the onstage artists’ seeming ability to soar in the space.
Though the bows were not taken as an ensemble cast, to my mind, Silent Night was an ensemble show. A pair of veteran performers, tenor William Burden and soprano Kelly Kaduce, sang capably and were given the final bow. They both portrayed German opera singers. At the height of international stardom, the tenor is called to serve the German war machine. Burden sang and played the same role in Minnesota, reprising it in Philadelphia, where he has performed before, and the audience rewarded him for his performance and faithfulness. Kaduce had an effortless grace on stage as the famous opera singer. Her voice, which is much larger than she is, had a sturdy, almost bone-chilling quality to it, especially during the Christmas Eve mass on the battlefield.
Performing toe to toe with Burden and Kaduce were baritone Liam Bonner, soprano Angela Mortellaro, baritone Craig Irvin, baritone Gabriel Preisser, and tenor Zach Borishevsky, a recent graduate of Philadelphia’s own Academy of Vocal Arts, who was simply magnificent. As the ill-fated Ponchel, baritone Andrew Wilkowske was disarmingly and utterly charming with his little alarm clock and bunker graces. Baritone and Pennsylvania native Troy Cook commanded the stage as Father Palmer, a Scottish priest, in one of the most moving scenes, the impromptu mass.
After Maestro Christie joined the cast on stage for curtain call, Puts and Campbell emerged from the wings for the last several bows. At that point the Philadelphia audience rose to its feet, almost en masse, to acknowledge the measure of the artistry before them and the significance of the great new work they have introduced to the American operatic landscape.
Bravo for Opera Philadelphia for committing to the production of a new American work in each of ten consecutive seasons. Last season’s Dark Sisters and this season’s Silent Night deserve to be seen and heard, and it’s thrilling to have the opportunity to experience these shows in the City of Brotherly Love.