A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, opera a cappella now available at Albany Records

Friday, November 11, 2011

SILENT NIGHT at Minnesota Opera

Minnesota Opera has much to be proud of about for its premiere production of SILENT NIGHT which plays November 12, 15 ,17, 19, and 20 at the Ordway Theatre in downtown St. Paul. I attended their final dress on November 10th. Given the complexity and size of the production it went so smoothly that it seemed like it could have been opening night.

SILENT NIGHT is about the World War I Christmas truce of 1914, when the opposing sides briefly put their guns down and shared the holiday together. It is the last gasp of fin-de-siecle gallantry before the horrors of mechanized modern war bring humanity to a much crueler plane. It is a story that deserves to be better known and is ripe for opera.

Everything works in this production. The set--sort of LES MIS on steroids--uses a turntable to switch efficiently between the French, German, and English (Scottish) sides.  The no mans land in between is atop the turntable. The cast was uniformly compelling, and the orchestra played beautifully. Indeed, the orchestral interludes--of the opening battles of 1914 and the administering of last rites--were some of the high points of the show. Kevin Puts' magnificent music has the ability to move from prickly modern to beautiful tonal clouds that put me in mind of Ravel. Music and singing play a key role in bringing the sides together to celebrate Christmas and the emotional climax of the opera for me was the moment when a singer from the German side and a Scottish bagpiper come together for a musical entente that brings everyone out of the trenches. (I hope the bagpiper gets a bow!) Sometimes I wished Puts had paid a little less respect to librettist Mark Campbell's fine text and let the characters sing, but  Puts is young and talented and will learn to bend the text to the musical will.

One of the things I was dreading was the monochrome effect of operas that have one voice gender--Britten's all male BILLY BUDD comes most to mind. The effect can be of too much chocolate or too much heat in a curry. Fortunately, the character of Anna Sorensen, a Norwegian opera singer is threaded throughout the piece. She reminded me of a much more sober and thoughtful version of Marie in DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT. Her high notes provide a welcome balance to the otherwise all male cast--the olive in the martini.

The libretto is based on the screenplay for the recent French film, Joyeux Noel. I could have wished for some more operatic pathos than it provided at the end but that probably is just from having seen too much Puccini. I was reminded of this when my favorite character in the opera, Ponchel, the French lieutenant's aide-de-camp, was mistakenly shot. He is shot, he sings, and dies. In the next opera of their season, WERTHER, the title character sings for a whole act before he dies from his self inflicted gunshot. If you have a chance, go see BOTH of them.

photo of dress rehearsal by Michael Daniel