WNO marks Armistice Day with Puts’ timely but musically slight “Silent Night”

Sun Nov 11, 2018 at 4:11 pm

Michael Adams, Aleksey Bogdanov and Norman Garrett (in foreground) in Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night” at Washington National Opera. Photo: Teresa Wood

On this day one hundred years ago, the powers fighting World War I declared the Armistice.

Many classical music presenters in Washington are marking the event with special performances. Washington National Opera is staging its first production of Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night, which opened Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

To mark the occasion, twelve ambassadors representing nations that fought in the war took the stage in a show of unity at the end of the curtain call.

Silent Night, premiered in 2011 at Minnesota Opera, won Puts the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Mark Campbell adapted his multilingual libretto from the story of Joyeux Noël, a 2005 French film about one of the unofficial truces called by the soldiers in the Belgian trenches around the time of Christmas 1914. Men from Scotland, France, and Germany, hearing one another singing and celebrating the holiday, ventured into No Man’s Land to meet one another and celebrate Mass.

Such truces actually happened in a number of places along the Western Front in the war’s first year, before the worst of the carnage had happened. Campbell and Puts weave together stories from each of the armies: two Scottish brothers fight to stay alive; a French barber, who makes the best coffee in France, misses his mother; and two opera singers from Berlin, who are in love, cross enemy lines to escape.

The problem with Silent Night is that the work’s emotional impact comes more from its libretto than its musical score. The work depicts a glimpse of humanity’s better side amid unspeakable butchery, but it does so without the music communicating the characters’ states of mind. Silent Night works as a dramatic piece of theater, with the characters singing most of their lines rather than speaking or yelling them.

But other than the more extended pieces for Anna, there is little in the vocal writing that sticks in the memory once the evening is over. Puts’ work is most vivid when he is imitating another composer’s style, as in the set pieces sung by the characters who are opera singers, but the melodic writing and harmonic interest remain nondescript for much of the piece. A new reduction of the orchestration by Jacques Desjardins, made to fit the Eisenhower’s smaller pit space, only served to  emphasize the plainness of the score.

The cast is made up entirely of current and former members of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program. Soprano Raquel González, a distinguished alumna of the program, showed ample range and poise as the opera singer Anna Sørensen, first seen in a faux-Mozart opera on the Berlin stage. Later her voice, shimmering and soaring up into the stratosphere, provided the musical climax of Act I in the unaccompanied “Dona nobis pacem” she sings at the conclusion of the soldiers’ Mass.

Alexander McKissick, a current Domingo-Cafritz member, was her tenor, Nikolaus Sprink, lacking some of González’s vocal warmth but with a buzzing edge that suited the character’s growing anger. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov blustered with considerable heft as Lt. Horstmayer, the last to relent and agree to the truce. Bass Kenneth Kellogg, a favorite from the program in the early part of this decade, was solemn and powerful as the Scottish chaplain, Father Palmer.

A few other performances stood out from the large cast, including current Domingo-Cafritz member Arnold Livingston Geis, whose ardent tenor continued to impress as the earnest young Scotsman Jonathan Dale. Baritone Norman Garrett, another distinguished alumnus, gave elegant voice to the Scottish commander, Lt. Gordon, and baritone Joshua Conyers, noted this summer in Wolf Trap Opera’s Rigoletto, made an indignant, angry British Major.

Tomer Zvulun’s cinematic staging, created for the Wexford Opera, features a three-level set showing the bleak trenches of the three armies, one above the other. The director makes efficient use of a selection of male singers from the WNO chorus, sometimes amplifying them through microphones. A battery of noisy projectors illuminate a scrim with different backdrops and animations (sets and projections by Erhard Rom), a device that p[roved particularly heavy-handed during the clumsy battle scenes in the first act.

Mounting a contemporary opera in the much smaller Eisenhower Theater was a savvy choice, meaning that the run of seven performances has already almost sold out. At the same time the less favorable acoustic, further muffled at times by the scrim, kept some of the voices from being heard clearly.

Conductor Nicole Paiement, a specialist in contemporary opera, led the orchestra with oversized gestures, which kept the singers on track. As director of San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle, which co-commissioned the re-orchestration of the opera, she did her best to make this chamber-sized version work.

Silent Night runs through November 25. kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600

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