There was only one outbreak of applause during the opening-night performance of Silent Night last Friday — composer Jeremy Puts pointedly didn’t outfit his opera with pauses for feedback. But the silence was probably less unnerving than it was at the Minnesota Opera in 2011, with which this production shares a set and much of its cast. The Minneapolis performance was the world premiere of an untested American opera. Philly was the East Coast premiere of a Pulitzer winner. And when Puts and librettist Mark Campbell came out at the end of the bows, the night was anything but silent.
Puts deserved that standing ovation, by far the loudest of the evening. Operas written sometimes try to balance a lack of immediately hummable tunes with sentimentality — a spoonful of sugar to make the dissonance go down. Puts managed to create an ensemble opera without bring-down-the-house arias that is still tremendously accessible; it’s a work that’s often nakedly emotional without (for the most part) falling into oversentimentality.
Which would be easy to do, given the maudlin source material — 2005’s Best-Foreign-Picture-bait Joyeux Noël, a film based on a real-life impromptu Christmas truce between Scottish, French and German soldiers in WWI catalyzed by an inter-trench caroling duel-cum-duet. (Here, it’s started by a bagpiper — “I’d rather hear bombs,” groans a German.)
The film leaned hard on some schmaltzy ideas about The Power of Music, but Silent Night, perhaps having a deeper understanding of music, has a less mystical take. The horror and trauma of being dumped into a nightmare unlike anything seen before are what unite the soldiers — music’s just a way around the language barrier. The diegetic music’s important here, but as a tool rather than a magic wand.
The big moment comes surprisingly early, then the whole second act is devoted to what happens next: The war grinds on.
If European composers were heading toward dissonance after the turn of the century, the brutality and despair of WWI sped it along. (The famously difficult, dark opera Wozzeck was influenced by Alban Berg’s experience in the Austro-Hungarian army.) The closest thing Silent Night has to a lead, Nikolaus Sprink (sung well by role originator William Burden), seems to be a nod to that history.
Sprink, a famous German opera singer, is conscripted right off the stage in the clever record-scratch of an opening, halfway through a performance a faux-Mozart duet with his lover, Danish soprano Anna Sørenson (Kelly Kaduce). “Singing — my career — useless,” murmurs the shell-shocked tenor later. Later, he’s called back to perform a reprise of the faux-zart at a party for the German bigwigs — where cheery diegetic music weaves in and out of the score like a serpent — but the duet now feels hollow and false, a mockery of the war’s reality.
That horror is established with a marvelously effective set. A circular center platform representing no man’s land rotates on a skew, like a coin nearing the end of its roll, orbited by various pieces that lock together to form a surprising number of distinct locations. Video projections on scrims evoke snow and explosions. (Though the foreground scrim kept getting caught on one side like cheap blinds, then loudly flopping down during solemn moments.)
The set is particularly effective in the opening battle. The marching songs of the three groups of new recruits begin to overlap in more and more dissonant ways as they approach the battlefield, until a sudden explosion on the scrim seems to send them all flying. The battle is ugly and chaotic, accompanied by a long, Bernard Herrmann-esque orchestral section; a fog machine creates the illusion that far more men than are actually in the cast are dying.
Before this, his first opera, Puts was known more for his orchestral work. Here, his best writing is orchestral or for the large male chorus, as in that pre-battle scene and in a lovely polyphonic chorale as the three sides fall asleep.
The solos and small-group pieces are generally more clever than beautiful — I particularly liked the frequent simultaneous translations between English, French and German often taking the form of quasi-canons, but my appreciation was rooted in the head rather than the gut.
Puts wisely avoids the well-known carols used in the film, automatically cutting down on schmaltz and preventing audiences from leaving infected with an “Adeste Fideles” earworm for lack of anything else as diabolically catchy. The big solos go mainly to Burden’s Sprink, Kaduce’s lone woman in a sea of men and Liam Bonner as French Lt. Audebert, aren’t hummable, nor do they end in big cadences that signal “It’s over! Applaud now!” But rather than a single aria or moment, you leave remembering an extraordinary, unbroken experience.
Through Feb. 17, $10-$225, Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., 215-893-1018, operaphila.org.