Opera Silent Night

The Guardian - G2 - - Live Reviews - Al­fred Hick­ling

★★★★☆ Leeds Town Hall To­mor­row and Fri­day

Of course it was never go­ing to be all over by Christ­mas. But the spon­ta­neous truces that oc­curred along the west­ern front on 24 and 25 De­cem­ber 1914 have be­come part of first world war mythol­ogy, en­shrined in ev­ery­thing from Oh! What a Lovely War, Paul McCart­ney videos and Black­ad­der Goes Forth to the 2005 film Joyeux Noël, on which this opera by the US com­poser Kevin Puts is based.

Puts’s de­but stage work, orig­i­nally com­mis­sioned by Min­nesota Opera in 2011, won the Pulitzer prize for mu­sic and has been widely pro­duced across the US. Though it was staged at the Wex­ford opera fes­ti­val, these per­for­mances by Opera North mark the UK pre­miere. Within the Vic­to­rian op­u­lence of Leeds Town Hall, Tim Al­bery’s pro­duc­tion has the feel of an epic Christ­mas or­a­to­rio rather than an opera per se. But the waves of sound gen­er­ated by the massed ranks of an im­mense male voice choir (the Opera North cho­rus re­in­forced by stu­dents from the Royal North­ern Col­lege of Mu­sic and a bat­tal­ion of com­mu­nity singers) cre­ates an over­whelm­ingly emo­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

Puts and his li­bret­tist Mark Camp­bell focus on a fic­tion­alised ver­sion of a true event, in which the Ger­man crown prince sent a lead­ing tenor from the Im­pe­rial Opera to sing at the front. Ro­man­ti­cis­ing things some­what, he is also re­united with his lead­ing lady, with whom he con­cludes the com­mand per­for­mance by mak­ing a rather fan­ci­ful bid for free­dom across no man’s land. But it does en­able Puts to in­clude some telling pas­tiche of ro­coco court opera con­ven­tions, in which armed con­flict is pre­sented as a harm­less, shiny-but­toned lark.

The Ger­man nar­ra­tive is jux­ta­posed with that of a Glaswe­gian fusilier, griev­ing for his dead brother, who ul­ti­mately brings the sea­sonal cease­fire to an end. Along­side the Scot­tish trenches is a French unit who com­plain, amid the tem­po­rary ces­sa­tion of mor­tar fire, that noth­ing is more dis­tress­ing than the per­pet­ual wail of bag­pipes.

It is to Puts’s credit that the lone piper ul­ti­mately de­liv­ers an in­cred­i­bly plan­gent mo­tif as the com­bat­ants use the last hours of the truce to bury their dead. And the score’s most af­fect­ing mo­ment is a tran­quil cho­rus that takes full ad­van­tage of mu­sic’s power to har­monise chaos, in which French, Ger­man and Scot­tish sol­diers all yearn for the tem­po­rary obliv­ion of sleep in three lan­guages at the same time.

The lim­ited space for scenic el­e­ments means that the ac­tion is fairly static, though video de­sign­ers Matt and Rob Vale an­i­mate the plat­form with archive footage from the front, cre­at­ing a spec­tral kalei­do­scope of doomed sol­diers ca­reer­ing over the top of the town hall organ. Con­duc­tor Ni­cholas Kok com­mands an im­pres­sive range of colours – it is not ev­ery day a har­mon­ica player re­ceives an or­ches­tral call-up – and the vo­cal per­for­mances are of a high stan­dard through­out. Ru­pert Charlesworth im­presses as the Ger­man tenor with Máire Flavin mak­ing the most of his slightly histri­onic girl­friend. Quir­ijn de Lang gives a touch­ing por­trayal of a French lieu­tenant sep­a­rated from his preg­nant wife, though the most poignant per­for­mance comes from Ge­of­frey Dolton as a faith­ful pri­vate, shot by mis­take hav­ing ex­changed uni­forms in no man’s land.

A French unit com­plain that noth­ing is more dis­tress­ing than the wail of bag­pipes

Massed ranks of singers … Silent Night

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