Composer: Kevin Puts
Libretto: Mark Campbell
Conductor: Nicholas Kok
Director: Tim Albery
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Opera North has established a tradition in recent years of so-called “concert” or “semi-staged” performances in Leeds Town Hall that often have a more emotional impact than fully staged productions. This is certainly the case with Tim Albery’s magnificent production of Kevin Puts’ remarkable first opera, Silent Night, the centre-piece of Opera North’s extensive commemoration of the Great War.
First staged by Minnesota Opera in 2011, Puts’ opera to a text by Mark Campbell adapted from the film Joyeux Noel won a Pulitzer Prize and has been widely performed throughout the States and elsewhere, but this is its UK premiere.
The opera centres on the Christmas Truce of 1914 which brings the first act to a close. It links the actions of French, Scots and German platoons which ultimately come together to celebrate Christmas Eve and then maintain a cease-fire for burying the dead on Christmas Day, the first humane after-effect of the truce. The remainder of the second act balances acts of humanity with the hidebound attitude of superior officers of all three nations who, in different ways, punish those involved. Individual stories emerge and then fade; the music, always powerfully communicative, encompasses the violence of battle, the calmness of repose, the agony of separation and the persistence of faith.
In Hannah Clark’s designs, the Town Hall stage gains an extension but initially is otherwise set out as for a symphony concert – except that the shallow forestage has a bench and between the sections of the orchestra are gaps, ramps, steps. Nicholas Kok enters in full formal style, with two singers, Anna Sorensen (Maire Flavin) and Nikolaus Sprink (Rupert Charlesworth), equally formally dressed. This could be a concert in Leeds Town Hall, but in fact it is Berlin Opera. After a brief jagged fanfare, they begin singing a delightful Mozart pastiche – all very correct until a messenger brings a note which the conductor solemnly reads to the audience in German – war has been declared. Sprink will be called up; at each side of the forestage characters in Paris and Scotland prepare, willingly or otherwise, for war; soldiers of the three nations pour down in sections over the orchestra rises; silhouettes of troops going into battle charge across the Town Hall organ pipes – and it all begins.
From that brilliant prologue to the subdued and moving finale – the stage emptying of soldiers, a harmonica playing a sentimental tune, a brief hint of Elgar in his introspective vein and single notes from a harp slowly fading – the emotional impact never lessens.
Much of this comes from the Chorus. The Opera North Chorus is supplemented by students from the Royal Northern College of Music, the Opera North Youth Chorus and a Soldiers’ Chorus of Community Singers – and soldiers fill every gap between and behind the orchestra, sleeping, fighting, dying, celebrating. The beautiful Sleep Chorus makes a huge impact, but even more impressive is the consummate way Kok controls such disparate forces spread over the whole stage, especially when the principals and chorus of each of the nations are acting a different scene, singing a different song. Incidentally, singing in English, French and German (plus a little Latin for the Mass) is an essential part of Campbell and Puts’ concept, though they wisely allow a couple of multi-lingual characters for ease of communication.
Silent Night demands a large cast of principals, and all are strongly cast. Maire Flavin makes the most of the operatic style of her character, but, when needed, sings and acts with intensity and Rupert Charlesworth’s palpable unease as he sings before the Kronprinz contrasts with the elegant lines of his duet. Lieutenants Audebert (Quirijn de Lang) and Horstmayer (Richard Burkhard) are the most ambivalent characters in the piece – both intelligently acted and splendidly sung, as is Timothy Nelson’s forthright Lieutenant Gordon. Geoffrey Dolton as Ponchel the batman mines the humour of the part without any over-acting.
Space does not permit detailing all the excellence of the production – from the other principals to the video designs, from the subtle and dramatic lighting to the magnificent orchestral playing. It’s just one of those fusions of original creation and production where everything works perfectly.
Further performances before December 7, 2018 | Image: Contributed