Honoring Those Who Fought in the War to End All Wars – The Glimmerglass Festival’s Compelling Silent Night

United StatesUnited States The Glimmerglass Festival [3] – Puts, Silent Night: Soloists, The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus / Nicole Paiement (conductor), Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, 22.7.2018. (RP)

Michael Hewitt (Lieutenant Horstmayer) in Silent Night © Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Michael Hewitt (Lieutenant Horstmayer) in Silent Night
© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Anna Sørensen – Mary Hangley
Nikolaus Sprink – Arnold Livingston Geis
Lt. Audebert – Michael Miller
Lt. Gordon – Jonathan Bryan
Lt. Horstmayer – Michael Hewitt
Ponchel – Conor McDonald
Father Palmer – Wm. Clay Thompson
Jonathan Dale – Christian Sanders
General Audebert – Tim Bruno
Kronprinz – Stephen Martin
William Dale – Maxwell Levy
Madeleine Audebert – Kayla Siembieda
German General – Brian Wallin

Director – Tomer Zvulun
Set Designer – Erhard Rom
Costume Designer – Victoria (Vita) Tzykun
Lighting Designer – Robert Wierzel
Hair & Makeup Designer – Dave Bova
Chorus Master – Katherine Kozak

Much of the American musical world is busy this year honoring the legacy of Leonard Bernstein on the centenary of his birth, and the Glimmerglass Festival is no exception. However, it is also paying tribute to the approximately 35 million people who were killed or injured during World War I, and commemorating the end of the hostilities 100 years ago this coming November with an opera.

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell’s Silent Night is based on the spontaneous truce that broke out on the Western Front during the first Christmas Eve of the war in 1914. The facts are commingled with the myths, but the combatants did lay down arms, exchange gifts, play a bit of sport and sing Christmas songs.

The higher ups were not pleased as fraternizing with the enemy humanizes them; feelings get in the way when killing is the business at hand. In the opera, to rectify the situation the soldiers are sent off to places where carnage would be the greatest. Perhaps unwittingly, however, as Verdun for example would not become a killing ground until 1916.

The first and last images of this staging, which originated at the Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland in 2014, are of a cenotaph honoring those who gave their lives for King and Country during the war. It is inscribed with the words, ‘In death all men are equal. Their names live forevermore’. Throughout the opera the names of the dead from the warring countries and the dates on which they died are displayed on a scrim. That alone brought a lump to one’s throat.

Director Tomer Zvulun and set designer Erhard Rom created a concept that was coherent and made a valiant stab at addressing some of the opera’s shortcomings. They transformed the horizontal into the vertical with the trenches of the three units – Scottish, French and German – stacked one on top of another. The officers and their men couldn’t see their friends or foes but had an unobstructed view of No Man’s Land which stretched in front of them.

Scenes of an opera performance in pre-war Berlin and the Christmas Eve party of the Kronprinz (the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II who actually did command one of the Germany armies in the early years of the war) were staged behind a hazy scrim. Framed as postcards, they served as portals to observe the last vestiges of an age of luxury and privilege that would all but disappear by the war’s end.

The libretto of Silent Night is complex, with multiple story lines that Puts and Campbell felt compelled to wrap up as neatly as possible. (It’s a trend nowadays that I tend to think of as the Hallmark-Channel Syndrome.) A boring trio among the three commanding officers added nothing to the action. Then there is the French father/son conflict to sort out. And what to do with the German opera singers crossing over to the French lines as they cannot bear to be separated? It just doesn’t work.

Another sign of the times is the tapestry of musical styles in the score. Melodies are reserved for the orchestra, although the opera singers are given actual songs. The repetitive ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ that Anna Sørensen sings during the Christmas Eve Mass doesn’t amount to much. Both Randall Thompson and Leonard Cohen showed how much emotion could be pulled out of a single word. That’s what was needed here. Instead, my mind started to wonder.

This was Puts’ first opera, and you sensed he was searching for his voice, resorting to music tinged with the musical flavor of the soldier’s respective countries. (The cultural stereotypes should have been stripped from the libretto. They get a laugh, but that boat sailed long ago.) The opera is compelling, however, and at its best in the poignant soliloquies and ensembles where the soldiers give voice to their feelings.

Nicole Paiement was just the conductor for the job. The French-Canadian specializes in contemporary opera, and her commitment to the work was obvious. (I was mesmerized by her excellent baton technique, executed with brisk efficiency and precision.) The result was a clear, luminous reading of the score which, though devoid of sentimentality, gave vent to the complex emotions engrained in the story.

The opera singers that wind their way through the action were Arnold Livingston Geis as Nikolaus Sprink and soprano Mary Hangley as Anna. Hangley was every bit the diva, elegantly attired, with a voice of grand proportions. Sprink, was a reluctant soldier, only in the trenches because he was conscripted into the Kaiser’s army. They brought to mind a latter-day Leonora and Fidelio, who deserved a much more noble exit than merely strolling off stage.Geis was just one of the excellent cast of young male singers who turned the compelling personas of the men in the trenches into flesh and blood. Four others stood out.

Lieutenant Horstmayer, a German Jew married to a French woman, performed with a simmering intensity by Michael Hewitt, was perhaps the most complex and sophisticated of the characterizations. Christian Sanders as the young Scot, Jonathan Dale, whose brother is killed soon after arriving on the front, evolved from a carefree young man going off to war on a lark to a hardened soldier intent on revenge. The call of duty required Lieutenant Audebert to leave his pregnant wife, and Michael Miller gave voice to his conflicting emotions in his firm rich baritone.

The most poignant scene of the entire opera was the death of Ponchel, Audebert’s aide-de-camp. Wearing a German uniform and returning from a visit to his mother, he was shot by Jonathan Dale, edgy, quick on the trigger and out to kill Germans. Imagine a young Mickey Rooney, flip and carefree one moment, dying with a catch in his voice and a tear on his cheek the next. That was Conor McDonald in a superb performance.

If I may be so bold, a word of advice. When you create a scene as powerful as Mimi’s death in La bohème, it might just be the time to bring down the curtain. After that, the audience doesn’t really care if a bunch of German soldiers are being shipped off to Pomerania. Short of that, it’s good to have a director like Tomer Zvulun on hand to frame the story with an image that never loses its impact and puts everything in perspective.

Rick Perdian

The 2018 Glimmerglass Festival runs through 25 August 2018, for more information, click here.

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