Opera de Montreal, May 19th at Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts.
MONTREAL – Opera de Montreal are ending their season with Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, a cinematically efficient opera about the Christmas truce of 1914. It’s easy to listen to and easy to like—like a fairy tale.
The opera points at horrors but doesn’t dwell on them; there are too many subplots to tie up, and anyway operatic stagecraft limits the reality of what we see. When it takes the audience a few seconds to find an online video of a man being beheaded or murdered by lethal injection, horror on an opera stage must be psychological to be effective—a dread made of music and completed in the mind. I’m thinking of Bluebeard’s Castle this fall at the Met. So despite it being about the stupidity of war, Silent Night is not an anti-war opera. That’s why it can be funded by Veteran’s Affairs and the American Embassy. Silent Night is like the Norman Rockwell version of war, when we need George Grosz.
The production in Montreal is the original one that premiered in 2011. It’s still traveling; still recouping costs. I think Michael Christie has conducted it more than anyone and he got a muscular performance out of the acoustically challenged pit at Wilfred-Pelletier (apart from a terrible, probably drunk solo violin at the opening of the second act.)
Silent Night is based on the 2005 movie, Joyeux Noël, which makes sense. Even a middling film is good promotion and can measure the audience for a story, reducing the risk of an opera commission. But it suggests a derivative work. Why an opera? Did Marketing check everything else off the list?
Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking is the obvious comparison. It was a book and a movie before the opera premiered in 2000, and it was Opera de Montreal’s contemporary hit two years ago. Both are great productions and well-sung, but while Silent Night confirms opera as predictable and conservative, an art form so dependent on institutional power and money that it lobotomizes its critical faculty, Dead Man Walking leaves you exhausted and angry.
So, does Silent Night belong to opera? Parts certainly do. Puts has a gift for layering and he creates multilingual scenes that range from menacing cacophony, when the three armies muster and march, to timid murmurs as they civilize No Man’s Land and a beautiful melancholic scene where soldiers read letters home in a blur of hopeful sound. These felt natural and they could only happen in an opera. But much of the rest could have been a play, and the music does more work than the singers.
In the opening scenes, Francis O’Connor’s stage spins faster than emotions can develop as we’re introduced to all the characters at speed. When the first shots are fired we don’t care who’s killed. We haven’t even begun to care.
That comes later. Silent Night is short (two acts), it’s in three languages (five if you count Italian and Latin, used very briefly) so there are many parts a North American audience can understand without subtitles, whose intrusiveness I think we seriously underrate. And it’s well-plotted. There’s a French husband and wife out of touch for so long that he doesn’t even know if she’s had the baby; a Scottish boy writing letters home as if his brother were still alive; a German lieutenant who’s Jewish and pretends it doesn’t matter, and anyway his hands are full with the two leading roles, an opera singer in his unit who gets special treatment—Joseph Kaiser, who jumps into No Man’s Land singing and sets in motion the truce—and his soprano girlfriend, Marianne Fiset, who manages to get to the front lines and sing the only showpiece aria, a haunting and exquisitely simple prayer. Daniel Okulitch was splendid as the German lieutenant, the same role he sang in the Canadian premiere in Calgary, while Kaiser changed the tone in the hall when he first sang outside a trench hut. Suddenly, I cared.
The French aide-de-camp Ponchel was pleasantly hammed by Alexandre Sylvestre, and Phillip Addis sang Audebert with lovely conviction. The Scottish soldiers Alexander Hajek, Geoffrey Sirett, and Christopher Enns, made admirable company debuts, but their accents were deplorable. As the French put it when the bagpipes started playing, I’d rather listen to bombs.
Actually, I wouldn’t. I’ve never heard bombs dropping towards me, luckily. This is the kind of joke you should only make in the trenches. Silent Night’s lasting impression is of humour and humanity surviving despite the war, which is good, but it’s not enough. In fact, though it’s certainly not pro-war, the opera seems to leave the door open to war-done-right. Rationalized and democratized, at least on the side holding the gun.
There are interesting problems to be tackled here. Where’s the opera about a drone operator going home to drink and play video games in a Maryland suburb? Where’s the opera about Gaza? Or Baghdad? And if we can’t have these kinds of operas, if we can only have operas about wars that happened so long ago that most people have forgotten why they were fought, what does that mean?
The spontaneous truce can happen because trenchermen have a common decency based on their lower-classness and their maleness—they like drinking and they like women. The generals hate it, of course, but the generals are caricatures. This opera starts to say that the soldiers wouldn’t be fighting at all if it was up to them, but except for a quip about “Hindenburgs and Krupps”, Silent Night doesn’t take up the question. The generals sing “we must make sure it does not happen again!” Could it? Wasn’t it some kind of Christmas miracle? I don’t think this opera has made up its mind.
The production is very good, but the story deserves a starker telling. The Christmas truce of 1914 was not a fairy tale. It happened. The war went on anyway.