Silent Night, American composer Kevin Puts’ two-act opera about the unofficial ceasefire in the World War I trenches at Christmastide 1914, proved worthy of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012. Despite already having been performed in Minnesota, Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Calgary, Cincinnati, Montréal, Kansas City, San José and Cooperstown, New York, this self-evident measure of stateside acclamation appears not to have registered yet on the radar of most European opera companies. This short run of Leeds Town Hall semi-stagings from Opera North includes the work’s UK premiere.
Importantly, the tempting obvious musical cliché of a rendition of Stille Nacht from one, let alone all, is judiciously avoided. Written in an accessible style – a harmonic redolence of the Britten and Tippett of the 1940s, with the populist agenda of previous Pulitzer laureates Aaron Copland and William Schuman stamped purposefully into almost every bar – A Child Of Our Time for The Common Man, perhaps – Puts portrays, in stark contrast, the humanist greatness of little lives and the small-mindedness of the Great Powers in the Great War. Mark Campbell’s libretto intersperses the crushes of fear and loss with uplifting humour and comforting moments of kindness. Artistically, it provides an emotionally compelling conclusion to this year of commemoration.
Many people’s war are explored in the action: the cynical conscript from Berlin, parting reluctantly from his beloved, the officer’s servant now removed from a grieving mother at home, the Scottish brother enlisting for glory, dragging along a younger sibling on his crusade, the Parisian father-to-be, putting duty before the needs of a wife pregnant with their first child, the German Crown Prince for whom warfare is just another hobby, the French general for whom warfare is a career.
Opera North have already treated material as diverse as Handel oratorio and Wagner’s Ring Cycle to their semi-staging magic at this venue, and they work their wonders once more. Set designer, Hannah Clark, divides the orchestra into three by introducing two paths to the front of stage. This allows the action to access to an extra depth of theatre. Every last inch of Town Hall stage is utilised, accommodating not only the orchestral players, but a male chorus and soloists as well. Far from the rigid formation of an oratorio performance, the production comes alive with forward momentum and dynamism. An imposing array of percussion makes for a truly wall-shaking barrage of fire power, yet the instrumental writing is oft-times reduced to bagpipes or a single harmonica.
Thomas C. Hase, in charge of lighting, cleverly projects on to the hall’s back stage organ pipes the many greys of war: contemporary monochrome film of eager mobilisation, the desolation of no-man’s land, of figures playing the famous football match, of bodies draping over barbed wire, of a graveyard of crosses, hastily constructed. Only as the night of Christmas Eve brings falling snow can these solemn greys resolve into black and white and the glow of a Yuletide peace.
It has been suggested that, for professional soldiers, those principal protagonists of the war’s early months, temporary cessations in the conflict were part of implicit etiquette, a chance to recover the dead and wounded, and shore up damaged defences. However, the exchange of simple gifts and sharing of whisky, schnapps and cognac, the united carolling voices and common prayers of Midnight Mass were not a uniform respite across the Front. As Act One ends with a solo voice, “like an angel’s”, the restless, distant, pulsating glow of firepower tells of the unremitting struggle continuing elsewhere.
Act Two begins with a horn solo, beautifully played by Bob Ashworth. The dawn of Christmas Day fails to herald a lasting peace. Authority figures on all sides move in to re-impose military order. Our heroes are to be transferred to other centres of danger, to Verdun, Neuve Chapelle and the Eastern Front. Despite the work’s exposure of the contrived nature of wartime animosity, the score’s “white page” closing foretells that, though not the war’s first such interlude of peace, the understanding of Christmas 1914 was to be its last.
Vocally, there are strong performances all round. Dublin-born Máire Flavin, as Anna Sørenson, by far the principal female, closes Act One, unaccompanied, yet with the tonal colouring to frame a vivid, emotional picture. Tenor Robert Charlesworth shows interpretative skills of a high order, a voice finely deployed in love and anger. Christopher Nairne, promoted from the Company’s chorus, makes a splendid debut in the rôle of William, the elder Scottish Dale brother and ON regular, Dutch baritone, Quirjin de Lang, is as straightforwardly warm- and clear-toned as ever. The male chorus of soldiers deliver their, perhaps too few, numbers with passion and commitment. The orchestral playing is outstanding, even for this fine ensemble, showcasing a score which is rewarding for both player and listener.
As a devout and sincere homage to men-at-arms, whom we remember at peace, this work deserves to have repeat performances every year.
Treat yourself to this first Christmas 2018 offering.
Sung, in the main, in English, yet with reassuring English titles.
Catch the next performance on Thursday 6th or Friday 7th December at Leeds Town Hall.
Review by guest author Tom Tollett.
Photograph credited to Tristram Kenton