Kevin Puts’ Silent Night: Inspired and User-Friendly

04/11/2014

Kevin Puts: Silent Night, Wexford Festival Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Michael Christie (conductor), Wexford Opera House, Ireland, 27.10.2014 (JMI)

silentnite

Silent Night-Wexford Festival Photo: C. Barta

Cast
Germans:
Nikolaus Sprink: Chad Johnson
Anne Sorensen: Sinead Mulhern
Lieutenant Horstmayer: Philip Horst
Kronprinz: Alexandros Tsilogiannis

Scottish:
Jonathan Dale: Alexander Sprague
William Dale: Ian Beadle
Father Palmer: Quentin Hayes
Lieutenant Gordon: Gavan Ring
British Major: Koiji Terada

French:
Lieutenant Audebert: Matthew Worth
Ponchel: Quirijn De Lang
General: Scott Wilde
Madeleine: Kate Allen

New Production
Direction: Tomer Zvulun
Sets: Erhard Rom
Costumes: Vyta Tzykun
Lighting: DM Wood

Kevin Puts, an American composer born in 1972, has written a great deal of symphonic music. Silent Night is his first opera. It was premiered in Minneapolis in 2011 and has had several revivals in America; this was the first performance in Europe. The opera has been very well received to the extent that this is already the third new production. Its success has lead to two commissions for Puts in 2015 and 2017, in Minneapolis and Philadelphia respectively. The new operas will be The Manchurian Candidate and Elizabeth Cree. As in Silent Night, the librettos will be by Mark Campbell and the musical direction in the hands of Michael Christie.

Silent Night takes its central theme from the famous informal truce on Christmas   1914 on the French front. Puts presents a series of characters who are forced to fight in the war, and in the prologue we are introduced to the main protagonists: two German opera singers, two Scottish brothers and a French lieutenant. The interesting libretto goes into the characters’ problems, their useless suffering in the trenches and also the reaction and condemnation of the three armies for their informal truce. Puts’ music is superb, inspired and delicate, as well as being very friendly to the ear. It is an opera that will increasingly enter into the repertoire and deservedly so. In the 21st century some excellent operas have been written and, in my particular evaluation, Written on Skin, A Harlot’s Progress and Silent Night fill the podium.

Wexford commissioned a new production by Israeli director Tomer Zvulun, whose work is excellent. He narrates the story well, starting with the presentation of the characters in the prologue. The trenches are offered vertically in three heights which convey perfectly the difficulty of living in that small space. At the top we meet the Scots and in the middle the French, while the Germans occupy the stage itself. The sets are well-suited to the action, and the costumes recreate uniforms from World War I. The stage direction is meticulous in every detail, reflecting Mr. Zvulun’s great knowledge of opera. Strong emotion is present throughout the opera, and the stage direction was an excellent vehicle for it.

Michael Christie led the musical direction; he conducted the world premiere of the opera in Minneapolis and its revival in Philadelphia. Christie proved to have a perfect knowledge of the score and offered a most delicate and exciting reading. For me it was the best part of the performance. Under his baton the Wexford Festival Orchestra sounded much better than the day before. The Festival Choir, with each of its members an individual character, did a great job.

The performances from the numerous cast were beyond reproach in all cases, which points to excellent work in rehearsal. Vocally, there were no outstanding voices.

On the German side, the main protagonists were the opera singers who end up deserting and seeking asylum in the French trenches. They were tenor Chad Johnson as Nikolaus Sprink, who was good, and Irish soprano Sinead Mulhern as Anna Sorensen, good in the middle range but shrill at the top. There was also a strong performance from baritone Philip Horst as Lieutenant Horstmayer.

On the French side, baritone Matthew Worth as Lieutenant Audebert was a better actor than singer. In the sympathetic character of Ponchel, baritone Quirijn De Lang  made a good impression. The General, father of Lieutenant Audebert, was Scott Wilde, and he did well.

Finally, among the Scots I should mention the strong work of Gavan Ring as Lieutenant Gordon and the good performance by Quentin Hayes as Father Palmer.

The Opera House was fully sold out, and the audience was always responsive. There was a very warm reception for the artists at the final bows.

José Mª Irurzun

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