Washington opera fans often act as if the only opera within reach happens either in Washington or New York. It’s a mistake, though, to overlook Philadelphia these days. The opera company there has just rechristened itself “Opera Philadelphia,” a new name to go along with an increasingly ambitious profile. Like the Washington National Opera, they only put on five productions a year; unlike WNO, they’re increasingly taking chances, offering unusual and new work along with repertory staples, and carving out a place for themselves as proponents of American opera with a commitment to presenting a new American work every year for the next decade. Friday night saw the local premiere of “Silent Night,” which had its world premiere at the Minnesota Opera in the fall of 2011 and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize; and for those accustomed to the New York-DC operatic axis it was a refreshing change of pace and scale.
“Silent Night” is the first opera by the composer Kevin Puts, who’s established himself as a contemporary tonalist, writing a kind of 21st century romanaticism in muscular pieces that don’t sound derivative. Sticking to what’s become a template for new American operas, he and the librettist Mark Campbell (the go-to librettist these days; when I wrote about him two years ago he had four new works coming out, and according to his bio he’s currently working on six more) based their work on a movie -- a poignant war movie, no less. “Joyeux Noël,” made in 2005, tells the true story of the Christmas cease-fire in the trenches during World War I, during which soldiers stopped shooting, allowed each other to bury their dead unharmed, and shared Christmas treats -- the latter enhanced, in the opera, by an aria from a passing soprano.
Credentials or no, I was braced for “Silent Night” to be cloying, and was happy to find it far less so than I’d feared. Puts is both a tonalist and a melodist, so you might think that he’d naturally incline toward big catchy arias, but instead he ventured cautiously onto vocal terrain, creating a through-composed score in which the orchestra did a lot of the heavy lifting, melodically speaking, even in the vocal soliloquies. Several times, the characters stayed on one note, as if testing the waters or losing themselves in thought, while the orchestra -- led by Michael Christie, who conducted the 2011 premiere -- offered the big tune. This is an opera in which individuals represent the masses, and the music generally took the masses’ part. It’s telling that one of the most vocally ravishing sections was a three-part chorus for the Scottish, French and German armies, each huddled in their own sections of trench around Francis O’Connor’s peripatetically revolving stage.
Above: Liam Bonner in the Minnesota Opera production of “Silent Night,” which came to Opera Philadelphia on Friday (and runs through February 17).
It’s also telling that the big soprano number mentioned above was not an outpouring of personal emotion but a nearly a capella prayer for peace, offered as part of the impromptu Christmas service. And the single human voice, rising to an impassioned near-scream, seemed frail and vulnerable against the dark, lowering orchestral music that characterized most of the score. (This impression was inadvertently furthered because Kelly Kaduce, the soprano, went flat a few times, though as anyone knows who has followed the challenges of singing outdoors in the cold during recent Presidential inaugurations, this added a realistic touch.)
As for the story, I feared cuteness when the curtain opened on an opera within an opera: the diva Anna Sørenson (Kaduce) and the tenor Nikolaus Sprink (William Burden, not quite as vocally authoritative as I’ve heard him be in previous outings) are performing in Berlin and are interrupted by the declaration of war. Puts clearly had a lot of fun kitting out their duet in full faux-Mozartean glory, illustrating some of the things his own opera was not; they got to finish it later in the act at a command performance at a holiday party given by the Kronprinz (Albert J. Glueckert, a tight robust tenor) behind the lines. (Also cute: the manic Christmas-oratorio music when the German soldiers receive a holiday shipment of Christmas trees.)
And I feared patness when the prologue went on to introduce us to the opera’s French and Scottish protagonists -- the Scots, two brothers (the tenor Zach Borichevsky, smooth and easy-voiced, and the baritone Brandon Cedel), so you know one is doomed; the French, the handsome young Lieutenant Audebert (Liam Bonner) who has to leave his pregnant wife.
Indeed, you could see some of the plot points bearing down on you, and the first half of the opera seemed highly improbable (example: the diva following her beloved Nikolaus from the Kronprinz’s party to the front lines), and every end was indeed neatly tied up. Yet in the second act the piece became involving; the post-truce conversation between the three commanders, Audebert, Lieutenant Gordon (Gabriel Preisser) and Lieutnant Horstmayer (Craig Irvin), for instance, managed to avoid both musical and to a lesser degree dramatic cliche. (Irvin sang with a warm strong baritone that made a quiet mark.) If there was anything cloying, it was the lovable French aide-de-camp Ponchel (Andrew Wilkowske), this opera’s answer to Corporal Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H*.
“Silent Night” is part of the Minnesota Opera’s ongoing commitment to staging American opera; its director, Eric Simonson, also staged that company’s successful Ricky Ian Gordon opera of “The Grapes of Wrath” in 2007. (Simonson offered a dark and understated production here, though with perhaps slightly too much backing and forthing of the set turntable.) Opera Philadelphia, with a fancy composer-in-residence program and Nathan Gunn as their American-opera spokesman, seems to be casting itself in the same, generally laudable mold. There’s been a lot of discussion for some time about the Washington National Opera’s involvement with American work; only two hours away by train, another company is showing that it can, indeed, be done.