Silent Night is one of the most moving operas that I have ever seen.
The silent night of the title of the opera is not the well-known Yuletide carol but a truce among Scottish, French and German soldiers on Christmas Eve 1914 to stop killing each other on the Western Front.
Kevin Puts’ opera to a libretto by Mark Campbell tells a moving story about humanity and decency in the midst of brutality. It is a paean to humanity and a condemnation of our species.
Campbell has woven several personal stories involving soldiers and officers of the warring armies around the national conflicts that brought these people to the war for the sole purpose of killing each other.
Arnold Livingston Geis as Nikolaus Sprink in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2018 production of
Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's "Silent Night." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Director Tomer Zvulun has staged a superb production that captures the horror and senselessness of war and the human decency that can rise above it.
The Glimmerglass Festival stage is divided into three sections, one on top of the other, and they are occupied by Scottish, French and German platoons. The men are patriots and fighting for their countries. They are convinced of their righteousness and want to kill their enemy.
On the personal side, there are two Scottish brothers, William (Maxwell Levy) and Jonathan (Christian Sanders), who volunteer for service. But William is killed by the Germans and Jonathan, filled with hatred, promises to take revenge.
Nikolaus Sprink (Arnold Livingston Geis) and Anna Sorensen (Mary Evelyn Hangley) are singers with the Berlin Opera and he is conscripted into the German army. He is a good singer but a bad soldier. She is conscripted to sing for the Crown Prince who is camped in a nearby chalet on Christmas Eve and Nikolaos is sent to do the same. The two lovers are reconciled but how and where they will end up is another question.
Lieutenant Audebert (Michael Miller), the son of an officer, has enlisted in the French army leaving his pregnant wife behind. These are the central personal stories that are weaved into the temporary truce that miraculously happens on that Christmas Eve.
As the soldiers are shooting at each other, they realize that their enemies are people, that they have everything in common and no reason to kill each other despite the fervent patriotism and self-righteousness that they have been indoctrinated with.
During the evening the men from the three nations drink, exchange pleasantries, eat and have a good time together. In the morning hostilities are about to resume, but, again miraculously, they decide to extend the truce for a few hours in order to bury the dead.
Dale Travis as The British Major with members of the company in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2018
production of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's "Silent Night." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Puts’ score is an exquisite piece of music, expressive, moving, approachable, dramatic and occasionally dissonant. Campbell’s libretto is based on the screenplay of the film Joyeux Noël by Christian Carion. The opera is sung in the three languages of the combatants with some Latin. It was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera and premiered in 2011.
One of the most moving scenes in the opera occurs when Father Palmer (William Clay Thompson), a Scottish cleric performs a Christmas service and all the soldiers join in. The German Lieutenant Horstmayer (Michael Hewitt) joins in for his first such service. He is a Jew. That means he is not a “real” German and the opera prepares us for what will happen to the Jews of Europe in the future.
The commanding officers take an extremely dim view of the truce. The Kronprinz, the British Major (Dale Travis) and the French General (Timothy Bruno) punish the junior officers involved in the truce and make sure that no such event happens again. As Campbell puts it succinctly “war is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person.”
Although there are some atrocious accents as the singers try to manage Scottish, German and French intonations, the opera is well sung and affectively acted.
Nicole Paiement conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus in what is, I can only repeat, one of the most moving productions I have ever seen.
Silent Night by Kevin Puts (music) and Mark Campbell (libretto) is being performed nine times between July 15 and August 23, 2018 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org