As opera lovers know, one of the best things about the art is that it allows audiences access to characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings, whether it is love (requited or unrequited), longing, guilt, deception, revenge, etc.
In “Silent Night,” the second in Arizona Opera’s 2019 season, that quality was on full display as World War I soldiers from Scotland, France and Germany reveal their anguish and longing while far away from loved ones, for whom they are doing the fighting and killing.
Composer Kevin Puts and Librettist Mark Campbell were contracted by Minnesota Opera after their artistic director saw the 2005 French film “Joyeux Nöel,” which depicted a battlefield in France where men in trenches are forced to kill or be killed.
As Christmas Eve approached, thousands of men from both sides ventured out to see the enemy as the same, in many ways, as they themselves, with wives, girlfriends, families, newborn/expected babies; they laid down their arms, spontaneously and generously sharing their Christmas gifts of brandy and chocolates, admiring the photos of the loved ones of their enemy, and even playing futbol (soccer) with one another.
It is based on a true story from 1914 in the otherwise brutal World War I. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, and was in French, German and English.
The opera won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for Kevin Puts, and focuses on three trenches at the front of the battle — the Scots, the French, and the German, and we get to know the poignant stories from each. In this production, from onstage these trenches were cleverly depicted by three open rectangles, which were pulled and pushed to reveal both sides of the skirmishes from each country’s point of view.
In the German trenches, opera singer Nikolaus Sprink (tenor Andrew Bidlack) has been conscripted and longs for his fiancée, Anna Sorensen (soprano Julie Adams); he laments how he is changed and deadened by all he has seen and experienced on the battlefield. Bidlack has a clear, sweet, glorious tenor voice and was the standout of the opera for me.
The German Commanding officer, Lt. Horstmeier (bass baritone Kyle Albertson), is a by-the-books officer, appalled at Sprink’s sensibilities. He turns out to have a French wife, loves Paris, and is Jewish — an ironic portend of things to come in Germany.
In the Scots trenches, Jonathan Dale (tenor Bille Bruley) laments that he could not save his brother William, and left him on the battlefield, dragged back by comrades who knew it was the only way Jonathan would survive, as William was gone. He vows revenge on those who did this to him/William.
The commanding officer for France, Lt. Audebert, (baritone Joseph Lattanzi) is away from his pregnant wife, and in battle has lost his wallet with his only photo of her. His father (bass Nathan Stark) is a professional Army general who expresses some disappointment in his son who is loyal to his men, but not the brutal endeavor.
Audebert’s aide-de-camp, Ponchel (baritone Chad Sloane) is the comic relief, making sure his lieutenant has excellent coffee daily, and longing to see his mother — living only a two hour walk away — with whom he always had coffee at 10 a.m. daily before the war.
On Christmas Eve, Sprink risks putting his head and a small tannenbaum above his trench, and one by one the soldiers decide to trust and drop their arms, and enjoy and see the humanity of them all. The German lieutenant had found Lt. Audebert’s wallet and returns it to him; the French share their Christmas champagne with the Scots' whiskey and the German's brandy; they play a spontaneous game of futbol. They participate in a Latin Mass, their “Amens” being universal, as is their “dona nobis pacem” — give us peace.
Ponchel had borrowed a German uniform to sneak home to have coffee with his mother, and as he returns, Scot Pvt. Jonathan, furious at the Germans for having killed his brother, shoots and kills him, but not before Ponchel advises Lt. Audebert that he is the father of a baby boy.
Alas the truce is ended, the peaceful troops made to pay by their respective commanders for their having “consorted with the enemy” and are punished and sent away to different fronts, the new father Lt. Audebert and his men to Verdun.
Composer Puts’ modern music is almost like a soundtrack — lovely and lyrical at times, and sad/poignant at others. Conductor Joseph Mechavich did an excellent job of shaping the AZ Opera orchestra for each subtlety. Librettist Mark Campbell made each of the characters’ longings and angst palpable.
Next up for Arizona Opera is Mozart’s “La Nozze de Figaro” on April 13 and 14.