Fort Worth — “Well, it is safe to go to new operas again.”
This comment was overheard in the lobby of Bass Performance Hall on Sunday at the intermission of the Fort Worth Opera’s final production of the 2014 festival, Silent Night by Kevin Puts. This follows a series of new locally produced operas written in an accessible neo-romantic, yet fresh and up-to-date, language. There was Jorge Martin’s Before Night Falls in 2009 and then, in 2010, Dallas Opera’s Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie (which will return to Dallas Opera in 2016). Then the Fort Worth Opera produced Lysistrata by Mark Adamo in 2012, and in the current festival, the professional premiere of the searing With Blood, With Ink. Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt entranced audiences in Houston earlier this season. Beautiful music, definitely—but these scores are also wonderful theater.
How the worm turns! Now, an opera written in a completely dissonant language would be considered passé and out of date. “Oh, how quaint. 12-tone.”
As an opera, Silent Night has it all—excellently drawn characters, touching and true personal interactions, gorgeous music and taut drama. Originally produced by the Minnesota Opera a few years ago, the score won Puts a Pulitzer Prize. His music is written in a lush, neo-romantic style, seasoned with some minimalism and spiky dissonances exactly whe1n needed. Most importantly, it is a stunning and emotional experience to watch above and beyond its considerable musical beauty.
While this opera is not filled with spinning melodies that you might leave the theater humming, it overflows with melodic splendor because of the beautiful harmonic underpinnings. Think of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which is basically a one-note tune harmonized into posterity.
Puts has his own take on the use of tonality in 2014. It’s not your great-grandfather’s tonality that dominated before the 20th century’s atonal revolutions. Puts’ music sounds fresh and original. As in any composer’s output (even Mozart), there are places where his musical ancestry peaks through. One example is the music he writes for the sunrise, which is a tribute to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. It is all but impossible to write music without parts of it reminding someone of something else, but Puts’ references are intended. For example, the scene in which we meet our Prima Dona is vaguely like Mozart or his contemporaries (maybe Gluck), and a Bach-ish fugue appears later on.
If there is a compositional weakness, it is that he sets up his arias in too transparent a manner. This alerts the audience that one is coming up and doesn’t allow them to grow organically out of the overall texture. On the other hand, being forewarned never hurts, I suppose.
The libretto, by Mark Campbell, is a retelling of the story first presented in the 2005 French movie Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) by director Christian Carion. It, in turn, was based on real events that took place in December 1914 when enemy troops (Scottish, French and German) spontaneously called a one-night truce from the hostilities of World War I on Christmas Eve. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. Afterwards, all were disparaged, disciplined and demoted for fraternizing with the enemy; most of them did not survive the war.
Interestingly, the original movie has some opera in it, as two of the characters are opera singers. The German tenor Nikolaus Sprink, now a private, and his lover, Danish soprano Anna Sørensen, were both portrayed by actors in the film, but the singing voices were supplied by none other than Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazón.
Here, no voice doubles are needed. Sørensen is portrayed by local favorite Ava Pine, who looked glamorous and sounded glorious on Sunday afternoon. Sprink is played by tenor Chad Johnson, whose agent states is “noted as a ‘blond hunk with a bright tenor sound.’” Indeed. His uniform precluded assessing the first part of this breathless description, but his performance certainly validated the last.
The rest of the cast is equally fine. There is another tenor role and Kevin Newell brings an equally bright tenor sound to the role of Jonathan Dale, one of the Scottish soldiers. As his commander, Lt. Gordon, Dan Kempson brings an authoritative baritone to bear. The other baritones in the cast are all a little different, which makes telling who is who easier than it might have been with all similar voices. It was, after all, these three commanders who made the truce possible, and who later bore the brunt.
The German commander, Lt. Horstmayer, is played by Craig Irvin, who has the biggest voice of the three. A darker sound is furnished by Morgan Smith as the French commander, Lt. Audebert. There is a smattering of comic relief, but hardly a knee-slapper, furnished by Steven Eddy as the French aide-de-camp Ponchel, who supposedly makes the world’s best coffee. His death, caused by a mistaken perception, is the only one in which we, the audience, feel personally involved, and it is a devastating moment indeed. The battle scene that opens the opera is horrific for sure, but we haven’t come to know any of them at that point.
Back in the WWI era, war was all about men, and so it is here. In fact, the idea of women in combat is still a hotly debated issue. The presence of the Swedish opera singer is an accident of timing, but it brings the welcome addition of a female voice. There is one minor woman character (Madeleine Audebert, played by Clara Nieman), and the rest of the large cast is men. Most notable are Nicholas Simpson as the German Kronprinz, Jesse Enderle as the British (Scottish) major and Aaron Sorensen as the French general.
Speaking of nationalities, all sing in their native languages. This means that those portraying the Scottish have to use a Scottish accent. Most do a fine job and are to be commended for making a considerable effort in this regard.
This Babel tower is critical to the plot because this lack of a common language is not only one of the obstacles that they overcome, but is a symptom of the entire situation. It is a differentiator between “us” and “them.” Remember, this was a pre-drone time when wars were fought practically hand-to-hand. Bombs were a new replacement for the more in-your-space cannons. Back then, we had soldiers shooting at each other, face-to-face, and the winner was whoever had more troops alive when one party threw in the towel. So, calling a truce meant that pointed rifles had to be lowered, “…but only for tonight.” A second truce to bury the dead is used more of a delaying ploy to put off the inevitable.
Sets these days make use of projections to great effect. Thus, the efforts of set designer Francis O’Connor and projection designer Andrezj Goulding are inseparable. The gentle snowfall is a beautiful highlight that has “peaceful” written all over it. The most prominent locations are on a revolving contraption on a series of dollies that moves around in a gigantic circle on the stage. Unfortunately, it clanks and groans as it moves, creating a distracting symphony of mechanical sounds. (One is reminded of the dreadful noise made by “The Machine” that the Metropolitan Opera used as a one-set-wonder for their recent Ring Cycle.)
Conductor Joe Illick was a marvel on the podium. He still moves around too much, which is fine for symphonic work, but not as much for an opera conductor. However, it is hard to quibble with such results. He understands singers, breathes with them and is sensitive to their needs in performance. He is always on top of the text and you never feel like there is any tension between pit and stage. Even though Puts practically pulls out all the orchestral stops, I was not aware of a single moment when the singers were covered. The pre-recorded sound track of bombs bursting in air frequently covers everything when it is present, but explosions and mayhem probably would cover an orchestra in real life (should one happen to be playing on a battlefield).
Stage director Octavio Cardenas does a marvelous job. Since there isn’t a fight director listed, the realistic opening battle scene, as gruesome as any Hollywood war movie, must be his work as well. Most noticeable, among the many brilliant touches he brings to the action, is the wariness with which the enemies treat each other right up to the final moment of temporary bonding and the hesitance to then go back to killing. It is much harder, if not impossible, to shoot a friend than an enemy.
The best summary of Silent Night comes from the libretto itself, at the very end. “It was the most amazing thing…I shall never forget it.”
Here's a video preview of the production:
Other reviews from the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival:
- Bizet's The Pearl Fishers
- The popera outfit Forte, featuring Sean Panikkar
- Daniel Crozier's With Blood, With Ink
- Mozart's Così fan tutte
Remaining Schedule of 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival Performances
Tuesday, May 6 7:30 p.m. McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Wednesday, May 7 7:30 p.m McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Thursday, May 8 6:00 p.m McDavid Studio Frontiers Showcase #1
Friday, May 9 3:00 p.m. McDavid Studio Frontiers Showcase #2
Friday, May 9 7:30 p.m. McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10 2:00 p.m. McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10 7:30 p.m. Bass Hall Silent Night
Sunday, May 11 2:00 p.m. Bass Hall Così fan tutte