Silent Night Music by Kevin Puts, Libretto by Mark Campbell
Based on the screenplay by Christian Carion for the motion picture Joyeux Noel produced by Nord-Ouest Production, commissioned by Minnesota Opera

Dates and Venue November 3, 8, 9, 2018, at 7:30pm & November 4 at 2pm | Old Auditorium, UBC

Conductor Robert Wood Director Nancy Hermiston Lighting designer Jeremy Baxter Set and Projection Designer Robert Gardiner Stage Manager Sheila Munn

Anna Sorensen Magdalena How Nikolaus Sprink Ian McCloy Lt. Audebert Luka Kawabata Lt. Gordon Brian DeLong Lt. Horstmayer Yuhui Wang Ponchel Rafael Laurindo Father Palmer Matthew McLellan Jonathan Dale Justin Cho Kronprinz Richard Margison French General Philip Wing William Dale Matthew Kim Madeleine Audebert Irem Ince-Akmete British Major Liam Robertson Bagpiper Kurt Ward-Theiss Harmonica Player Antony Knight
UBC Opera Ensemble and Vancouver Opera Orchestra

In English, French and German, Latin and Italian with English surtitles

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

UBC Opera has partnered with UBC’s Department of Education and the Veterans Transition Program to present a 3-day Symposium examining war and the effects of war timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice which ended the brutal slaughter of the “war to end all wars.” The Symposium concentrated on the contributions of what used to be thought of as minor groups and are now beginning to finding their rightful place - Indigenous, Chinese, female - and on the psychologically injured. It touched briefly on the Healing Arts. In juxtaposition, the opera features Scottish, French and German soldiers at war. It is Christmas 1914, somewhere on the front lines in France, at one of those moments where for a brief while soldiers fraternized with the ‘other side’ celebrating Christmas.

Based on the screen play by Christian Carion for the French film Joyeux Nöel and commissioned by Minnesota Opera, the opera examines the experience of war and touches on the place of music in society and in war.

Silent Night opens with a short Overture, indubitably modern and martial in its sensibilities, which dissolves into an over-ripe 18th century aria admirably showing off the elegant voices of Magdalena How (Anna Sorensen) and Ian McCloy (Nikolaus Sprink). The performance is interupted by a German officer, curtly announcing that Germany is at war. Nikolausj is conscripted.

The Prologue continues in Scotland as the romantic and fiery William Date (Matthew Kim) convinces his gentler brother Jonathan (Justin Cho) to volunteer with him. They are joined by their parish priest Father Palmer (Matthew McLellan). In France, Audebert, (Luka Kawabata) prepares to enlist, torn between leaving his pregnant wife, Madeleine (Irem Ince-Akmete) and satisfying his father, the General (Philip Wing).

Act I opens on the battle field as the French and Scottish forces are fiercely repelled by the German troops. The music resounds with jagged dissonances, flashing whistles and restless confusion. During the fighting two men experience war’s horrors with consequences that drive the plot. Nikolaus stabs a man. William is shot and Jonathan tries but fails to drag him to safety. Both men despair, Jonathan dissolving in a passion of denial, rage and revenge against a falling trumpet line; Nikolaus agonizing, unaccompanied, over the triviality of a life of music and popular acclaim. The scene closes with all the soldiers singing of their longing for sleep in a marvellously atmospheric chorus.

It is in these wonderfully evocative passages that Puts’ work really shines. He is very skilful in writing in various styles. The three groups of soldiers sing in in their own language, and in the musical style of their countries. The Scots have their bagpipes and stirring airs, the German soldiers arrange their Christmas trees - a gift from the Crown Prince - to a fugue. In a moving aria, “J’ai perdu ta photo”, Lt. Audebert grieves the loss of his wife’s picture in long, lyrical, velvet lines inspired by French opera, beautifully sung by Luka Kawabata. It is Puts’ art to also make this more than a clever pastiche. Audebert’s aria is cut through with appalled despair as he lists the day’s dead and wounded and the richness of the orchestration thins. The deep significance of German fugue belies the tinsel on the Christmas trees. And his writing moves between styles with subtlety, imperceptibly shifting from modern dissonance to Schubertian lushness or spare stillness. It is the intense, haunting stillness he can conjure that remains in the mind.

The cast, which included some veterans, was generally excellent with the chorus of soldiers in partnership with the principals. In addition to those already mentioned, Yuhui Wang was solid as Lt. Horstmayer, matched by Brian DeLong’s Lt. Gordon. Richard Margison maked a cameo appearance as the Kronprinz (the German Crown Prince). Special mention goes to Rafael Laurindo as Ponchel, the French aide-de-camp and the light relief in this dark opera. Perfect comic timing and strong characterization were delivered with a fluid, clear baritone.

An inventive set, brilliant projections (both from Robert Gardiner) married to Jeremy Baxter's equally effective lighting, and good, if noticeably unmuddied, costumes generated a grim world for Nancy Hermiston’s reliable direction. The Vancouver Opera Orchestra negotiated its way through the kaleidoscopic score with heart under Robert Wood’s even guidance.

A couple of quibbles - diction could be improved, including some wildly straying accents, burning candles need to be carried upright and carefully, and - note to librettist, the otherwise admirable Mark Campbell - Oslo was known as Christiana at the time.

© 2018 Elizabeth Paterson