Friday, July 11, 2014

In Cincinnati Opera's 'Silent Night,' the poetry is in the pity

Nikolaus and Anna throw themselves on the mercy of French officer Audebert (left).
Centennial observances of the start of the First World War can bring us a little closer to understanding that conflict's epochal significance. Given superior artistic form, as in the 2011 opera "Silent Night" by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, the way life changed forever in the West between 1914 and 1918 hits close to home.

The opera's focus, powerfully realized in the Cincinnati Opera production, is the informal 1914 Christmas Eve truce among small groups of combatants on the Western front. It actually happened, several months after dithering among Europe's great powers had given militarized nationalism its head. What with their slow, mixed-signals response to the June 28 assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the inevitable result was general war.

The opera frontloads the horrors of the most destructive warfare known anywhere up to that point. With dissonant roaring from the orchestra, the flash and boom of artillery forms a backdrop to hand-to-hand combat pervaded by confusion and fear. On opening night Thursday, the first-act battle scene was unfailingly vivid and close to terrifying.

Old Europe is encapsulated in the opening scene, approximating an 18th-century love duet for two stars of the Berlin opera stage, Anna Sorensen (Erin Wall) and Nikolaus Sprink (Thomas Blondelle). Their offstage romance is quickly put on trial by the ensuing war, with the character of Sprink encapsulating the cynicism of many whose lives are at the mercy of their rulers' pride and carelessness.

The libretto has generous amounts of French and German juxtaposed with the dominant English, as the story of the truce is fleshed out with insights into the lives of Scottish, French and German soldiers. Supertitles connect the audience at every point to the characters' thoughts and words.

The human inclination to cherish peace — despite our equally strong inclination to inflict pain on people we are persuaded to see as foes — is represented by lyrical solo turns for Sprink,  a French officer, Lieutenant Audebert (Phillip Addis), and his cheerful aide-de-camp, Ponchel (Andrew Wilkowske, in a winning characterization). All provided a poignant context to explain the motivation behind the peaceful encounter of enemies in no-man's-land one snowy Christmas Eve.

A prominent British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, titled his brisk study of the war's outbreak "War By Timetable." The world of "Silent Night" is one futilely apart from timetables — a couple of days out of time, a respite attempting to veil the despairing recognition that this monstrous war would be neither brief nor conclusive.

The music reflects that feeling of suspension, right through the opera's hushed ending, with phrases from soldier's letters recalling the truce, repeated by offstage voices. The orchestra strings play a few soft, sustained chords, punctuated by isolated harp (possibly celesta or glockenspiel) notes, reminiscent of the final measures of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring." As the snow fell and the light glimmered on a fresh grave's cross, "the shadow of the morrow weighed on men," in the words of the elegiac First World War poet, Wilfred Owen.

And the punishment each detachment receives — in a powerful trio of official reprimand — emphasizes the transience and daring of the truce. The peaceful inclinations of Father Palmer, a Scottish priest, as well as Sprink and Audebert, will not be rewarded. In a flash of dramatic irony, Audebert is sent off by his father, a by-the-book general, to an obscure French village called Verdun, where 200,000 casualties on each side would be registered within a short period less than two years later. The libretto skillfully indicates the tendency of the warrior mentality to override its opposite, most notably in the determination of the Scottish soldier Jonathan (Thomas Glenn) to avenge his brother William's battlefield death.

Vocally, the fact that up till quite recently warfare was a man's world allows for some stunning male choruses in this opera. Despite the bravura displays written into the part of Anna, and quite well dispatched by Wall on opening night, the female presence is necessarily restricted (the small part of Mme. Audebert is the only other woman's role). Puts is fond of deep male voices, so much so that a few of the singers Thursday were challenged to put across their lower notes well, notably the otherwise competent Hugh Russell as Father Palmer.

Soldiers write letters home in "Silent Night."
The performance was conducted with skill and sensitivity by David Charles Abell, drawing a splendid range of sound from the orchestra. The score is rife with cheek-by-jowl contrasts. Sudden patches of dissonance punctuate it, pointing up the fragility of those reflective or nostalgic moments that sporadically overcome the characters.

Emotional turmoil is also magnified by other instances of dramatic irony, particularly in the character of  Lieutenant Horstmayer, for whom the truce represents his only Christmas ever, because he's Jewish. Craig Irvin reflected vocally and dramatically the uneasiness underneath this disciplined officer's devotion to the Fatherland.

"Silent Night" memorably embodies Horstmayer's fate, as well as the wider destiny of his co-combatants and the civilization they unwittingly ruined. Evoking a gone world, the opera also validates, gracefully and with pathos, the martyred Owen's prediction, the force of which still resonates: "Now men will go content with what we spoiled. / Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled."

[Photo credits: Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera]