An opera company has an idea for an opera, and so it finds a composer to write it. This scenario presents opera as a hurdle to be conquered: It’s not about finding art that we want to stage as much as it is about making work that fits our specifications.
“Silent Night,” by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, is such a work, commissioned in 2011 by the Minnesota Opera and based on the French film “Joyeux Noel,” about the Christmas truce of 1914 in which soldiers in the trenches laid down their arms for a few hours during World War I. The opera has, in material terms, succeeded; it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, and it has had multiple productions, including revivals that opened at the Washington National Opera and the Minnesota Opera on Saturday night. Yet in theatrical terms, and in musical ones, it simply isn’t very good.
War is hell, indeed. “Once your sworn enemy ceases to be faceless, war becomes far less possible,” the composer wrote in a program note, and the opera illustrates this message, introducing a string of amiable, two-dimensional stereotypes, in three languages (German, French and English heavily distorted by fake Scots accents), in a story of three nations meeting in a moment of brotherhood. It’s a message we all want, and one, evidently, that dovetails well with what classical music lovers want from their music — tonality, sweetness and a reaffirmation of general truths. But these things alone do not a good opera make.
Presenting new work is a struggle for any opera company: It’s expensive to put on, hard to find singers to learn new roles they may not get to reprise and a big risk at the box office. “Silent Night” has shown itself to be popular with audiences; as for the other two points, WNO addressed them by paring down the scale of the production and turning to its young-artist program for the singers. The piece is staged in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, in a reduced version for 40 instruments jointly commissioned with Opera Parallèle, a small opera company in San Francisco founded by the evening’s conductor, Nicole Paiement. Forty instruments is a lot by chamber-opera standards, but the result sounded a little dull in Paiement’s accurate rendering. (This is her third time conducting a run of this opera.)
As for the singers, the evening was not a great recommendation for WNO’s young artists and alums, though there were a few standouts. Aleksey Bogdanov, as the German commander Lt. Horstmayer (who, we learn, happens to be Jewish, with a French wife), sang in a resounding baritone that seemed bigger and clearer than anyone else on stage. Kenneth Kellogg was imposing as Father Palmer, the Scottish pastor, and Norman Garrett warm and rough-hewed as the Scottish commander Lt. Gordon.
The love interests in the work are a pair of opera singers who open the evening in 18th-century garb singing a Mozartean duet that’s interrupted by the outbreak of war, and who subsequently get themselves into the trenches so that the soprano can offset all the male voices with a couple of prominent arias. Alexander McKissick, the tenor who’s been conscripted and protests the war, and Raquel González, the soprano, both offered operatic-volume singing of no special distinction; González’s intonation drifted markedly south in her exposed a cappella section. The diction in all three languages was woefully mushy, with the Scots accents perhaps the most egregious. Putting on heavy fake accents would be the stuff of comedy in any other medium but seems to be acceptable in opera.
Tomer Zvulun, who has directed several times at the Wolf Trap Opera, made his WNO debut with this production, which originated at the Wexford Festival. Set designer Erhard Rom, also in his company debut, stacked the action in the three trenches one atop the other, like cartoon panel strips or a prefab apartment house — a reasonable solution to the challenge of staging three simultaneous areas of action but one that made it harder to pick up the nuances of the individual characterizations, such as they were. As for Puts’s music, it surged and roiled as called for, avoiding direct quotation but reveling in stylistic pastiche — the brief opera scene, baroque-style music for the advancing Germans in the battle, the Christmas songs in the truce — but left little impression on the ear, like sea foam.
Given that opera companies are putting such a premium on story and libretto these days when commissioning new work, it’s striking to me that in so many recent new operas I haven’t liked, it’s the librettos that weighed them down. Nico Muhly’s “Marnie,” at the Metropolitan Opera, suffered from awkward vocal writing and a deeply problematic concept exacerbated by Nicholas Wright’s book. “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at Santa Fe had a highly competent score by Mason Bates but another Campbell libretto that was slick and whitewashed history (what I might term the “Nixon in China problem”).
“Silent Night,” by contrast, is merely inconsequential — a meringue-y puff of dry sweetness offering truisms in the guise of a message, even a plot. It’s harmless, and it memorializes a war we’re at risk of forgetting. Indeed, the most powerful moments on Saturday night were the moments presented as outright memorials — the names of the dead scrolling across the proscenium at the start and finish of the show, with a tableau of an actual monument, fenced with poppies. It may tug at your heartstrings; it won’t offend you, or challenge you, or till great new artistic ground. But to judge from its popularity, and from the fact that Puts is working on a new commission for Renée Fleming at the Met, it seems to be just what the opera field wants.
Performances of WNO’s “Silent Night” continue through Nov. 25 at the Kennedy Center.