After the success of Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking two years ago, L’Opéra de Montréal turned to another American contemporary opera to close its 2014-2015 season. The choice fell onto Kevin Puts’ 2012 Pullitzer Prize winning opera, Silent Night. Both works have much in common. Not only are both inspired by successful books and films but they are both primarily driven by dramatic narrative rather than their music for both are characterised by atmospheric, ‘user-friendly’ musical idioms.

Kevin Puts’ well-crafted and accessible score is almost cinematic in its musical evocation. Puts begins with musical pastiche (in the style of Mozart to open the opera), and displays an engaging facility at integrating Christmas carols, hymns, popular ballads, traditional songs and even bagpipes into a score in which musical influences are many and varied including Shostakovich, Puccini and even Vaughan-Williams. Despite a few awkward transitions, the dramatic pace (hectic at the beginning more measured in the second act) is rarely threatened let alone negated.

The opera is based on the 2005 film, Joyeux Noël in which Christian Carion tells the tale of the 1914 Christmas Eve truce during the First World War, in which Scottish, French and German soldiers celebrated together for a day rather than continue slaughtering each other. Ultimately, outraged superiors made all involved pay for their temporary lapse into sanity. Like Carion, Puts and his librettist, Mark Campbell, seem to express the view that it becomes mightily difficult to kill someone you have come to regard as a fellow human being. Silent Night is Puts’ first opera but certainly not Campbell first libretto. It is one of the work’s defining strengths. It ranges across five languages and is by turns effectively fast-paced, touching and endearingly comic especially in underscoring national differences and stereotypes.

Director Eric Simonson uses the original 2011 Minnesota Opera production and the opera’s episodic nature as an internal motor to move the drama forward, again in near-cinematic fashion. He is ably assisted by Francis O’Connor’s single revolving, circular raked set with a battered church bell-tower as a constant back-drop, Andrzej Goulding’s subtle projections and Marcus Dilliard’s equally unobtrusive lighting. Another member of the work’s original creative team, Michael Christie conducts the admirable Orchestre Métropolitain with a sure hand and a constant regard for balance and dramatic pace. He treasured the first act Sleep chorus and positively drew out the evening’s most moving and beautiful moment, Anna Sorensen’s a cappella arioso, Dona nobis pacem.

It is Puts’ vocal idiom and language that represents the work’s major challenge. His lack of experience writing for operatic voices is perhaps the work’s most glaring flaw. Much of his writing utilises a cruelly extensive vocal range with a propensity for ungainly upward intervals and much declamation in the upper register. Puts and L’Opéra de Montréal are indeed fortunate in having at their disposal a comprehensively fine cast. The all-Canadian cast is in fact the chief glory of this production. On the German side, Montreal-born tenor, Joseph Kaiser, as the opera-singer turned soldier Nikolaus Sprink, sings with generosity (though his upper register tends to become opaque and somewhat restricted) and reveals the psychological complexity of his character with conviction and commitment. His beloved (and fellow opera singer), Anna Sorensen who follows him to the front, is sung with astounding poise and beauty of tone by soprano Marianne Fiset. She rides the exposed tessitura of the first act prayer – and everything else for that matter – with a rarely encountered vocal ease and opulence. Fiset has gained considerable confidence, aplomb and dramatic purpose since her last appearance here. Sprink’s commanding officer, Horstmeyer, reveals bass-baritone Daniel Okulich to be as charismatic and powerful a singer as he is an actor of considerable presence and authority.

The Scottish troops are led by baritone’s Alexander Hajek’s gruffly sympathetic Lieutenant Gordon who is almost over-shadowed by Father Palmer as portrayed by bass Thomas Goerz’s who adroitly captures the disillusionment and despair of the man of cloth. The French contingent are most ably represented by baritone Phillip Addis as Lieutenant Audebert who copes manfully with the demanding vocal profile of the role and especially the extensive range of his first-act photo aria while offering an understated and deeply-felt portrayal of the proud French officer. As his aide-de-camp, Ponchel, baritone Alexandre Sylvestre delivers perhaps his finest performance on the Montreal stage, one that passes from the touchingly poignant to the tenderly comic with unerring ease.

Silent Night, structurally and musically more American musical theatre than contemporary opera, has tapped into a modern desire to adopt a story dramatically told and using accesible music and staging techniques. Is it the start of a renaissance of sorts for opera or a passing fad? Time will tell.