Military leaders in London, Paris and Berlin thought it threatened the war effort and tried to hush it up, but the almost-incredible Christmas Truce of 1914 was a large-scale event involving about a hundred thousand troops who declined to kill each other for a brief period, and it finally reached the news. Now it is a well-known symbol of the futility of war. Silent Night, an opera inspired by it, was given its UK première by Opera North in the Victorian splendour of Leeds Town Hall, and it was a triumph. Composer Kevin Puts worked closely with this production and made it clear in a programme article that it has a message for today “that once your sworn enemy ceases to be faceless, war becomes far less possible”.

Quirijn de Lang (Lt Audebert), Richard Burkhard (Lt Horstmayer) and Timothy Nelson (Lt Gordon) © Tristram Kenton
Quirijn de Lang (Lt Audebert), Richard Burkhard (Lt Horstmayer) and Timothy Nelson (Lt Gordon)
© Tristram Kenton

Silent Night was first produced by Minnesota Opera in 2011, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012, and has been performed several times in North America and at Wexford Festival despite its dauntingly huge cast. Opera North called on not only its Youth Chorus but a bunch of enthusiastic students from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester to join with the male component of its main ensemble. The opera’s story is fictional, adapted from Christian Carion’s screenplay for the 2005 film Joyeux Noël by librettist Mark Campbell.

As in the film, the soldiers are Scottish, French and German. Masses of them sing and seethe around with remarkable fluidity next to the orchestra, in a restricted and steeply raked stage wearing the uniforms of the time, before steel helmets were issued, the Scots in khaki, the Germans in grey with leather Pickelhaube helmets and the French in blue with the bright red trousers which made them such good targets for snipers. In Tim Albery’s production, they sit in ranks, process solemnly down steps, slump as if sleeping, jump to attention for officers, stretch out as if dead or wounded and stand simply gazing out at the audience. They have a repertoire of hymns, carols and songs in English, French, German, Italian and Latin, but Stille Nacht is avoided. The music is polyphonic, with everything from arias to marches, from lyrical to harshly discordant. Bagpipes are heard in the distance. The orchestra illustrates the action and enhances a mood of terror as black and white projections of battle scenes play across the many organ pipes and pillars behind the singers.

Opera North’s production of Puts’ <i>Silent Night</i> © Tristram Kenton
Opera North’s production of Puts’ Silent Night
© Tristram Kenton

Cinematic elements are everywhere. When war is declared, it happens first in a Berlin Opera House, with a projected title in the style of a silent film announcing the fact above two performers, Nikolaus Sprink (tenor Rupert Charlesworth) and Anna Sørensen (soprano Maíre Flavin) who, in a duet, sing a fragment of a mock-Mozartian aria about a heroic soldier returning from glories on the battlefield, Mark Campbell’s replacement for the old favourite Bist du bei mir in the original film. The two characters have a crucial linking function throughout. Anna even turns up in the trenches, after being summoned by the Kronprinz (Tim Ochala-Greenough) to sing for him with her conscripted lover Nikolaus in a chateau behind the lines. Charlesworth conveys horror and resentment well, his high notes most convincing as he accuses the Junkers and other reactionary forces of promoting the conflict and warns Lieutenant Horstmayer (a superb Richard Burkhard), who is Jewish, that he is not regarded by those in power as truly German. Flavin, who is given great opportunities to exercise her coloratura abilities, has just the right kind of benign charisma for the part.

Máire Flavin (Anna Sørensen) and Rupert Charlesworth (Nikolaus Sprink) © Tristram Kenton
Máire Flavin (Anna Sørensen) and Rupert Charlesworth (Nikolaus Sprink)
© Tristram Kenton

It is easy to imagine a camera zooming in on each of the contentious national groups as attention is focused on them amongst the broad, whole-stage vistas. They each have a distinct musical style, without any crude plagiarism: the Germans pay homage to Richard Strauss; the French to Jules Massenet; and there are hints of Benjamin Britten when Jonathan Dale (tenor Alex Banfield) on the Scottish side is consoled by the chaplain, Father Palmer (baritone Adrian Clarke) after his brother William is killed. Banfield, like Charlesworth, expresses feelings of resentment powerfully, in his case more viciously. Clarke’s Chaplain becomes a central figure at several stages, his warm voice conveying compassion. The Christmas Eve Mass he leads at the end of Act 1 is deeply moving, with all the men in attendance, their voices finally blending. When he blesses all present and intones Vade in pace (Go in peace), the irony is overwhelming.

Puts’ opera addresses with great skill and much emotion a topic which is still very relevant, when political leaders try to benefit from emphasising the divisions between peoples and countries for their own gain. This production does it full justice, with heart-rending force.

*****