I heard the music of Kevin Puts for the first time in May at a concert of the Vocal Arts Ensemble. I liked what I heard, and was looking forward to more as the Cincinnati Opera presented his opera Silent Night. I was not disappointed.
The story is based on the amazing impromptu Christmas truce that occurred along the western front in 1914. The opera follows three groups of soldiers, German, Scottish, and French. After a brief instrumental introduction, characters from each of the three groups are introduced, as they learn about the war. The main focus among the Germans is an opera star, who is onstage performing a duet that gets interrupted by an announcement from the Kaiser. A pair of brothers in Scotland hear about the war, and one dreams of glory. A young French couple is expecting their first child, and the expectant mother complains that her husband is going away at such an important time.
Being opera, there has to be a love story. The soprano singing in the duet manages to re-unite with her lover, bringing the German away from the front to sing with her in a concert for the prince, and then returning with him to the front. Musically, this is a wonderful device. The shallowness of the rich nobility is depicted by the chamber ensemble accompanying an imitation of music from the early nineteenth century, contrasting starkly with the dark reality from the front. At the front, after the truce has taken hold, the soprano has a lovely, unaccompanied aria “Dona Nobis Pacem” just at the end of the first act. Erin Wall‘s lush soprano was a beautiful contrast to all of the male voices, though the aria gets a little showy toward the end for my taste. Later, the socialist ideology implicit all along takes hold of the couple: after a short, somewhat implausible speech about the greedy capitalists hiding behind a veneer of patriotism, they walk to the other side to surrender, escaping the fate that awaits many of those remaining. All in all, not very believable, but well within the operatic tradition.
The dramatic high point of the opera is the moment where peace breaks through. It begins with a solo bagpipe, imperfectly played, accompanying a Scottish baritone, safely in their bunker. Then, the German opera singer, stands up and sings a carol, while the French complain about both. The music and the libretto combine to give a sense of the danger as the German emerges from the safety of the trench, and though I knew how it was going to turn out, I was fully engaged at that moment.
In the second act, the truce continues. There is a delightful trio among the three lieutenants, mostly in English, but with the German translating for the Frenchman whose English is weak. I generally find collections of so many male operatic voices thick and dull, but not this time. The setting felt quite natural, and the translation gave the composer a chance to imitate the previous line, sometimes sequentially, sometimes overlapping, all quite inventive. Carrying it off as naturally as these performers did required both musicianship and acting ability; this was typical of the excellence displayed by the cast of soloists throughout the opera.
Kevin Puts’s musical style works with operatic voices. Sometimes, there is a sustained triad with an angular melodic line, though the harmony is usually much more complex. Except in the prologue, I seldom had trouble hearing the soloists over the orchestra, despite frequent thickness in the harmony. Under the able direction of David Charles Abell, the scoring worked.
“Better than the Carmen”, which is what my partner said after leaving Music Hall, would normally be impossibly high praise for a new opera; however, she was comparing it to a rather lame performance that we had seen to begin this summer season. In truth, she found some parts of this opera rather long. Silent Night is never going to be as beloved as Carmen, with its the sexy heroine, overwhelming passion, and abundance of catchy tunes,. However, I have no reservations about the Pulitzer Prize for classical music being granted to such a fine opera. I am pleased to live in a city where such excellent new works are performed.