Puts and Campbell Dramatize the Christmas Truce of 1914

United StatesUnited States Kevin Puts, Silent Night: Soloists, Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Nicole Paiement (conductor), Washington National Opera, The Kennedy Center, Washington D.C., 17.11.2018. (RRR)

WNO’s Silent Night (c) Teresa Wood


Anna Sorensen – Raquel González
Nikolaus Sprink – Alexander McKissick
Lt. Audebert – Michael Adams
Lt. Horstmayer – Aleksey Bogdanov
Lt. Gordon – Norman Garrett
Jonathan Dale – Arnold Livingston Geis
Kronprinz – Patrick Cook
Father Palmer – Kenneth Kellogg
William Dale – Hunter Enoch
Ponchel – Christian Bowers
British Major – Joshua Conyers
French General – Timothy J. Bruno
Madeleine Audebert – Hannah Hagerty
German General – Michael Hewitt


Director – Tomer Zvulun
Associate Director – Dan Wallace Miller
Set Designer – Erhard Rom
Costume Designer – Victoria Tzykun
Lighting Designer – Robert Wierzel

In the Washington National Opera premiere of Silent Night, American composer Kevin Puts has created a dramatically effective if not operatically distinguished work. Based on the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël, the opera tells the true story of a spontaneous unofficial Christmas Eve truce along the lines of the Belgium trenches in 1914, six grinding months into World War I.

Arriving during the centennial marking the end of World War I, Silent Night feels particularly timely. Certainly the war is a contender for the stupidest, most senseless slaughter ever waged. It is not simply a matter of the horrific body count in the many millions, but of the near-fatal devastation of European civilization. What made the scale of killing shocking at the time was that it happened amid a strong sense of common humanity — of a perception of shared human nature. The loss of that perception was perhaps the greatest fatality of the Great War. That it had not yet been totally lost is the message of this opera, as it movingly depicts the soldiers at least temporarily regaining it — much to the irritation of their commanding officers.

Mark Campbell’s libretto apparently closely follows the film script. In his program notes, Puts writes that as he began work on the opera (his first), he recalled ‘my childhood dream of writing film music had mutated — and some singers had shown up’. This remark is particularly revealing, since the music impresses more as an effective movie score than as an opera. The theatrical experience is no less complelling, since good film scores effectively enhance and illustrate drama.

The opera begins with a scene in the Berlin Opera in which a soprano and tenor (lovers in both) sing some faux Mozart. But the tenor is wrenched from the performance by a German soldier who announces his conscription in the war which has just begun. A short scene then shows a Scottish youth enticing his younger brother to join him in volunteering to defend Great Britain and gain glory in battle. The third preliminary scene is of a French lieutenant explaining to his pregnant wife why he must answer his country’s call to mobilization. All expect to be home soon.

The first major scene is of the war itself in which all hell breaks loose, appropriately jarring and dissonant, with booming sound effects and lighting flashes in the darkness. The battle choreography is particularly gripping. Trenches are cleverly portrayed in three stacked levels, in what otherwise would appear to be an open-face triple level parking garage, allowing simultaneous views of the Scottish, French and German forces. It also allows for some excellent interplay among the voices — jarring when they are assertively singing against each other and harmonious when they are singing with each other. Although the opera is practically bereft of arias, Puts proves to be a very fine vocal and choral composer. Occasionally, a soldier will step downstage for a more intimate portrayal. For example, the French lieutenant, sung so effectively by baritone Michael Adams, laments having lost the photo of his wife in the last exchange with the German lines.

As dawn approaches, Puts shows his considerable orchestral skills with a beautiful mini-tone poem depicting the rising sun. In the second act, he demonstrates this prowess again with a dirge during which all sides gather their dead for burial during the truce. Puts is also a talented chameleon, able to imitate Mozart in the opening scene, and then capture the local flavors of the three nationalities. It will be no surprise that the Germans get the heaviest counterpoint.

The potential problem is that the opera’s scenario could have peaked with the violent war scene, just as the work had barely begun. How do you top that, after all? From then on could have been just a long drawn-out dénouement.

However, the drama is kept alive by the palpable tension between the Allied and Axis soldiers as Christmas approaches. When they hear each other singing their respective carols, they realize that they may have more in common than the war would suggest. The German soldier/opera singer then daringly steps into no-man’s land with a small Christmas tree. Will they shoot him? Hesitatingly, soldiers begin emerging from the trenches. Food and drink are exchanged. Then the Scottish army chaplain sings a Christmas Mass that nearly all the French, Scottish and German soldiers attend on their knees. Watching the shared faith, so movingly depicted, what could be a more powerful dramatization of the civilizational glue that the war was tearing apart? As a soldier writes home, ‘All the men gathered around the cross as if it were a fire’. The German soprano, who has contrived to be with her lover at the front lines, ends the Mass with an extended Dona Nobis Pacem aria that soprano Raquel González sings radiantly. In many ways, this was the emotional high point.

After that, in a way, the rest of the opera was a long dénouement. The other problem was its occasional tendentiousness – actually more apparent in the words of Campbell and Puts than in the work itself, but worth hearing directly from them to capture some of its flavor. In the notes, Campbell relates the lesson, ‘War is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person’. The composer adds, ‘Once your sworn enemy ceases to be faceless, war becomes far less possible’. Of course, these are unfortunately not true. In the long history of warfare, most conflicts have been fought face-to-face with perhaps an increased level of ferocity due to that factor. On a smaller scale, most murders take place within families. It is because they know each other that they resort to violence. So it very much matters what sort of person one is talking about when one says that familiarity makes war unsustainable. The opera ignores this kind of complexity for a simpler anti-war message.

One is tempted to say that World War I made everyone anti-war — except for the Japanese and the Germans. Alas, President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘peace without victory’ only laid the foundation for an even worse conflict. The problem of Silent Night-style pacifism is that it is just as likely to start a war as prevent or stop one — perhaps more likely. We know that the pacifism of the interwar period simply incited Adolf Hitler’s plans for conquest.

My point is that a generalized anti-war message is less effective than one specifically aimed at the absurdly senseless World War I. When Puts and his librettist keep the lessons local by maintaining focus on the soldiers’ personal details, they more successfully avoid anti-war banalities and in moving their audience. And they are largely successful.

Here are a few minor mistakes. The Act II scene in which the three generals of the respective sides are downstage, fulminating that their men have stopped fighting to play soccer, shows the troops upstage through a scrim actually playing together. So war is anti-soccer? Well, yes, but this part of the message was heavy-handed. In the scene in which the French barber/valet to the lieutenant sings of the peaceful silence of his home, we are treated to silence. What we needed to hear was the sound of silence, not silence itself. Puts missed an opportunity here by being too literal, instead of something more unusual.

At the end of the opera, a giant cenotaph appears over which, on a scrim, is projected a seemingly endless rollcall of the names of the dead – British, French and German. On the cenotaph itself are included the words ‘In death all men are equal’, a poignantly ironic inversion of ‘All men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence — the very principle over which the next world war was to be fought.

Among the vocal standouts were tenor Alexander McKissick as the German soldier Nikolaus Sprink; the aforementioned Raquel González as the soprano; the commanding baritone, Aleksey Bogdanov, as Lieutenant Horstmayer; and baritone Michael Adams as the French lieutenant.

Director Tomer Zvulun did an excellent job of directing the heavy traffic on stage, not just keeping the nearly 30 people from bumping into each other, but making their movements dramatically compelling. He touchingly dedicates this production ‘to the memory of his commander, Avi Maimon, killed in Jerusalem on duty on September 26, 1996’.

After conducting it previously, Nicole Paiement knows the score well and was able to get the Washington National Opera Orchestra to articulate the full range of the music’s expressiveness.

Moving the production from the Opera House to the smaller Eisenhower Theater put the opera in the audience’s lap. Sitting in row H, I came close to a ‘you are there’ experience that made it all the more gripping.

Robert R. Reilly

Silent Night runs through November 25.

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