As Christmas 1914 approached, Benedict XV, who described the war as “the suicide of Europe,” pleaded for a Christmas truce. The military leaders refused, but somehow, at several points along the trenches, a surreal cease-fire broke out anyway.
That short, peaceful spell inspired the 2005 film “Joyeux Noel,” which focused on the experiences of some Scottish, French and German troops on a battlefield in Belgium. That film, in turn, inspired “Silent Night,” an opera by Kevin Puts, the Peabody Institute faculty member who received the Pulitzer Prize in music last year for this extraordinary work.
Opera Philadelphia is presenting the East Coast premiere of “Silent Night” at the Academy of Music in an impressive co-production with Minnesota Opera, which commissioned and unveiled the piece in November 2011. (The final performance is Sunday.)
Music history is not ...
There are a few weak spots here and there (and maybe too many growling brass chords), but the score for “Silent Night” delivers. The composer’s fundamentally tonal style communicates directly; his orchestra achieves prismatic power.
Puts writes well for the voice and has the advantage of a text by Mark Campbell, the librettist of choice for several composers. Campbell writes with a naturalness and concision that keep the plot and characters clear, the pacing effective.
(The two men have been commissioned by Minnesota Opera for another work, this one based on the vintage thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.”)
Everything about that unlikely Christmas truce is fascinating. And, as was the case with the film version, the opera personalizes the event with telling glimpses into the lives that intersected on that gruesomely scarred countryside.
"Silent Night" grabs hold from the Prologue, which introduces the primary characters from each country at the moment when the war first touches their lives. As their nationalistic pride heats up, Puts creates a Charles Ives-worthy clash of harmonies to go with it.
In short order, those characters become multilayered and sympathetic. How they end up — death, defection, transfer to other hideous fronts (punishment from top brass for the fraternization) — hits home. There is much left in the snowy air as the final curtain falls.
Two key characters are stars of the German opera stage — tenor Nikolaus Sprink and his Danish lover, soprano Anna Sorensen. They both find themselves at the front that December 1914, he in uniform in the trenches, she to perform for the nearby German high command.
Anna uses her connections to join Sprink on Christmas Eve and becomes part of the unexpected suspension of hostilities. When she sings “Donna nobis pacem” after a multinational Mass, the effect is riveting. The whole amazing scene, with all of its impossible hope, becomes focused on a single, plaintive voice.
That is just one of the many highlights in a work that gains strength from several little vignettes — a letter-writing scene, an officer getting a haircut, a man clutching the corpse of his older brother. With each turn of the revolving stage, something fresh is learned about the people trapped in the war that couldn’t possibly end all wars.
The atmospheric set (Francis O’Connor) is complete with bunkers, the ruins of a church and a no man’s land where Sprink dares to tread, singing a song and inviting his foes to join him.
The sturdy cast, directed with a fine eye for subtle detail by Eric Simonson, includes a stirring performance by William Burden as Sprink. The tenor is especially affecting during his eloquent expression of despair about the war, sung against a long-sustained note in the orchestra.
Kelly Kaduce does a vibrant job as Anna. A more tender tone would be welcome in some of the high-reaching melodic lines, but the soprano’s phrasing is emotionally telling throughout. Also on the German side, Craig Irvin gives a compelling performance as Horstmayer, the Jewish officer determined to serve the Fatherland.
Liam Bonner’s mellow baritone and nuanced acting flesh out the French officer Audebert, who has one of the opera’s finest moments — as the lieutenant writes up the casualty list, a litany interspersed with thoughts about his wife, the vocal line spins gently over a haunting accompaniment of harp and strings.
Andrew Wilkowske shines as Audebert’s droll aide, Ponchel. On the Scottish side, Zach Borichevsky sings stirringly as Jonathan Dale, a young soldier who cannot stomach this strange truce. Troy Cook is an urgent presence as the Scottish chaplain.
Michael Christie conducts the score with great sensitivity and draws beautifully detailed playing form the Opera Philadelphia orchestra.
“Silent Night” should be staged in Baltimore. How about a collaboration between Lyric Opera Baltimore and Peabody Opera in 2014, the centennial of the war and the Christmas truce? It would make an uplifting challenge for both organizations, and a fitting way to honor an extraordinary composer teaching in our midst.