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The large audience was stunned and overwhelmed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary opera which James Allbritten, general director and principal conductor of the Piedmont Opera has chosen to open the company's 40th season: Silent Night, by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell. The singing was terrific, the orchestra sounded at its very best, and the dialogue contrasted Gaelic, Gallic, and Germanic wit most effectively.
Situated in Flanders during World War I, three antagonistic camps pit Scottish and French troops against German. The clever use of three rotating stage elements (that served at times as bunkers, at times as trenches, and sometimes even as huts) allowed the war front to be brought into close quarters on-stage. Effective use of projections tailored to fit a long whale-ish cloud changed the scene from war front to opera house and back instantaneously. This projection technology was vital in maintaining the credibility of the story, which is nothing less than the cessation of hostilities for Christmas in that small corner of the war, which "… builds a Heaven in Hell's despair." (Wm. Blake)
The musical style is lyrical and often juxtaposes long unison or two-part lines with the simplest of rhythmic and harmonic ostinatos, a technique which proved very effective for Dimitri Shostakovich (although Puts' style is nothing like Shostakovich's). Puts writes very well for the voice, giving optimal vowels on high notes and allowing soloists like soprano Jody Burns (as the worldly opera diva Anna Sørensen) to exhibit her rich voice in all its glory at the top of her register. And she has a vibrato to fall in love with!
Her lover and fellow opera singer is Nikolaus Sprink, beautifully sung by tenor Kirk Dougherty, who hesitates but finally lets her guide them to surrender to the French. Making his Piedmont Opera debut was promising tenor Logan Webber as the surviving brother, Jonathan, who must bury his beloved William but continues to fib to their mother about his death. Webber has a rich voice – powerful, yet tender and endearing.
Strong and memorable voices were chosen for the Lieutenants of the three warring armies: Gabriel Preisser has a splendid voice befitting a handsome French father-to-be and son of the French Général. He also has history with this opera, having sung the role of the Scottish Lieutenant Gordon in the premiere performance in 2011. In this Piedmont Opera production, Gregory Gerbrandt sang the Scotsman and Brian Banion sang the German Lieutenant Horstmayer. Banion give his role an extra dose of humanity and humor when he reveals that he has passed his honeymoon in the French Lieutenant's neighborhood with his wife from Marseilles.
One other character stands out in the opera and that is the role of Ponchel, the amiable aide-de-camp of the French Lieutenant. Sung by Kyle Guglielmo, Ponchel is a barber by trade, but also a maker of fine coffee, a most charming character in the opera.
The three pompous senior officers were well-cast, the French Général (Daniel Boye), the British Major (Jason McKinney) and the German Kronprinz (Jonathan Sidden). Their haughty demeanor reminded the audience that war is fought by the little men in the trenches, to bring glory to the lofty and elevated – a scenario we see played out even today!
In the pit under the direction of Maestro Allbritten, the Winston-Salem Symphony's strings were astonishing. Stratospheric high notes were almost unfailingly in tune, and the often unison playing was rich and warm. Sometimes the orchestra was pared down to a pair of clarinets or a single horn eventually morphing into a high cello, depending on the state of tension in the story. While Jonathon buried his brother, a long keen-like threnody played by strings and harp set a somber mood, eventually revived by a pair of trumpets and woodwinds.
Cynthia Stokes, Stage Director, was responsible for the high degree of realism shown by the cast; and Norman Coates, Scene Designer, made the stage of the Stevens Center look like a war zone, a soccer field, a salon, and an opera house, with minimalistic suggestions.
Commissioned by Minnesota Opera with co-producer Opera Company of Philadelphia, Silent Night opened on November 12, 2011 at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota to great critical acclaim and standing-room-only houses for the entirety of its run. The opera is sung in English, German, French, Italian, and Latin and is based on the screenplay by Christian Carion for the motion picture Joyeux Noël produced by Nord-Ouest Production. I recommend attending the opera before watching the stark realism of the movie version, unlike what I did.
The opera repeats on Sunday afternoon, October 29 and Tuesday evening, October 31. See sidebar for details.