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Monday, July 16, 2018

The Missing Peace

AS THE POLITICAL FUTURE of the United States grows bleaker – with its corresponding drag on the future of everyone everywhere – it’s more important than ever to turn to the arts for inspiration and even, dare I suggest it, optimism. The Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “Silent Night,” which details an exceptional incident that occurred on a World War One battlefield, packs a wallop.

Michael Miller, Michael Hewitt, and Jonathan Bryan
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Mark Campbell’s libretto is based on Christian Carion’s screenplay for his 2005 film “Joyeux Noël,” itself inspired by a spontaneous truce that broke out on a Belgian battlefield on Christmas Eve, 1914. German, French, and Scottish soldiers shared food and wine and stories as hostility fell away into friendship – but it was a temporary truce that led to recrimination from the higher-ups.

Thanks to the propaganda activities of the U.S. Office of War Information during World War Two, the depiction of combat and the American way of life was sugarcoated to a risible degree. Some of the conventions of those motion pictures  (that service platoons were racially mixed, for example) grew into accepted archetypes and infected our understanding of the look at war for decades to follow, despite the efforts of films like “Paths of Glory.”

“Silent Night” reminds us that these are bosses’ wars – that it’s the Krupps and Hindenburgs behind it, as a German soldier protests towards the end. Two Scottish brothers rush to enlist, looking to share “the glory of battle,” which sours the moment one of them is killed. And the piece opens with a startling irony. We’re at the Berlin Opera, where tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Arnold Livingston Geis) sings, “I arrived this evening from war. Tonight we are together again.”

The Mozartean sounds are interrupted by a German soldier announcing that the country is at war. Sprink is conscripted, forcing him to leave his Danish girlfriend Anna Sørensen (Mary Hangley). They have achieved enough fame as singers that Sprink’s commanding officer, the imperious Lieutenant Horstmayer (Michael Hewitt) derides him as useless, because creative artists are terrible soldiers.

In France, Lieutenant Audebert (Michael Miller) learns that his wife is pregnant as he is forced to go to war, and he’s unable to get word from her for months to come, a quandary resolved by the cruelest of ironies. The proceedings then play out on a three-tiered set, a wonderfully stark piece of design by Erhard Rom. The top two levels have a suggestion of corporate-building corridors, reminding us of the money behind the conflicts, while the lower area extends to the proscenium to become a battlefield flanked by headstones.

We quickly accept that the Scottish regiment, on the top level, is within sight of the French (middle) and German (bottom) encampments, so the drama of their coming together on that battlefield isn’t at all lessened by the arrangement. But it’s also driven by the incredibly affecting score. Kevin Puts has a massive musical vocabulary, able to ape a style when needed (dig that Baroque-sounding counterpoint ushering in Christmas Eve), but also, for most of the piece, driving it with an orchestral sound that can go from terrifying to sweet as needed while serving the music inherent in the words and, most important, the emotions behind them. At times I was reminded of Richard Strauss, of Samuel Barber at others – but Puts has a voice all his own that rewards your attention.

Leading to a second-act sequence of burying the dead, the score features an interlude for flute and harp that then invites other winds; while the bodies are being collected, a martial rhythm underlies the orchestra’s more folk-like strains. And even as the leaders are agreeing to the holiday truce, the music continues to threaten hostility for a while.

We’re barely into the start of battle when Lieutenant Audebert is visited by an overbearing general who chides him for ordering a retreat (if he’s reminiscent of Adolphe Menjou in “Paths of Glory,” that’s no coincidence. Same war, same generals). Audebert’s concern is for his men, a concern echoed by leaders in the other camps, but the sentiment has an authenticity lacking in those OWI films.

The most compelling transformation comes from Lieutenant Horstmayer. Hewitt portrays him as a by-the-book, ramrod-straight officer, but, as he navigates the difficult decisions that circumstances throw his way, his humanity emerges.

Arnold Livingston Geis and ensemble
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In the midst of battle, Nikolaus is ordered to perform at the chalet of the Kronprinz (Stephen Martin), an assignment that turns out to be of strong-willed Anna’s doing. And she insists on accompanying him back to the front, where she will highlight the Christmas Eve service the soldiers share with an a cappella Dona nobis pacem that provoked plenty of tears around me.

The news can come to a woman “any time, anywhere in the world,” she tells Nikolaus once the dead have been interred. the following day. “It could be the boy she gave birth to, the man she chose to share her life with, the man she looked up to. Unless we do something about it.”  She promises to find a way – and does, in one of the few moments of hope that help the piece to its finish.

Needless to say, once the various generals hear about the cease-fire and descend to mete punishment, other calamities ensue, and we’ve developed enough sympathy for the characters involved to suffer along with them. Even a too-ironic reveal about the French general seems plausible.

Although “Silent Night” is unashamedly a message piece, it does its work through characterization, drawing us in through the combination of incisive writing and effective scoring. Special effects are used well: scrim projections help set up some scenes and transition to others. The party at the Kronprinz’s chalet takes place behind a scrim that sports a picture-postcard border, emphasizing the detachment (and downright unreality) of the lives of the bosses.

The entire cast is outstanding – and it’s a cast that features a large number of the Glimmerglass Young Artists. Don’t let the designation fool you: these are seasoned artists, and Conor McDonald, as French aide-de-camp Ponchel, is particularly excellent.

Nicole Paiement conducted the reliable, versatile Glimmerglass Festival orchestra, and the production was splendidly directed by Tomer Zvulun. “Silent Night” has been gracing opera stages around the world since its 2011 premiere, and with good cause: it’s a gut-wrenching, thought-provoking piece. Keep in mind, though, that this is why the bosses in Congress and the White House want to kill the arts: works like these pull back their flimsy curtains and reveal them for the ignorant, greedy fools that they are.

Performances of “Silent Night” continue at the Glimmerglass Festival through August 23, 2018.

Silent Night
Music by Kevin Puts
Libretto by Mark Campbell
Conducted by Nicole Paiement
Directed by Tomer Zvulun
The Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, NY
Alice Busch Opera Theater, July 15, 2018

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