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A triumph of stagecraft: Simonson's staging of Silent Night at Minnesota Opera
© Michal Daniel 2012
The opening-night ovation for Minnesota Opera's world-premiere production of Silent Night (seen Nov. 12) was long and clamorous, with the loudest acclaim fittingly reserved for composer Kevin Puts. But the evening boasted a second, unexpected hero in the young Brad Benoit, an alumnus of the company's Resident Artist Program, who stepped in on scant notice to sing the pivotal role of Nikolaus Sprink (a conscripted tenor) from the corner of the stage, while the laryngitic William Burden, who'd sounded splendid in rehearsal, walked the part for which he'd been engaged. (That part, as it happens, includes a telling moment in which Sprink, battle-scarred, finds himself unable to sing — a classic instance of life imitating art.)
A dramatization of the much-recounted Christmas truce of 1914, in which as many as 100,000 soldiers briefly put aside their weapons to mingle in the no-man's-land between their trenches, Silent Night — the latest issue of Minnesota Opera's admirable New Works Initiative — is based on Christian Carion's polyglot screenplay for Joyeux Noël,his 2005 Europudding of a film. Carion bequeaths to librettist Mark Campbell and director/dramaturge Eric Simonson a vein of sentimentality not easily expunged. But Campbell's text — is there a librettist more parsimonious with syllables? — and Simonson's staging skirt most of the pitfalls.
Silent Night is Puts's first opera, and one senses that he's found his métier. (Occasionally one has the sensation of looking over the composer's shoulder as he discovers the power of the medium.) He's a masterly polystylist, able to weld together heterogeneous musical materials that range from a pseudo-eighteenth-century opera-within-the-opera to jarring atonality. He writes impressively complex polyphony when it's called for but is more affecting when his music turns spare and reflective. His timing is unerring. And if his writing for the voice now seems marginally less idiomatic than his writing for orchestra, that will surely change. With this remarkable debut, Puts assumes a central place in the American opera firmament. Much will be expected of him.
Gray though it inevitably is, the production, costly by company standards, is a triumph of contemporary stagecraft. Everything works together — Francis O'Connor's restless set, Marcus Dilliard's vivid lighting, Andrzej Goulding's often-subtle projections, and Kärin Kopischke's uniforms (not forgetting those ludicrous spiked helmets) for three armies.
As Anna Sørensen, Sprink's operatic lover, company regular Karin Wolverton provided a contrast to the almost unrelievedly male world of this opera, singing intensely but displaying a bit less temperament than her role seems to require. Among the men, Troy Cook (Father Palmer), Andrew Wilkowske (Ponchel) and the tri-national trio of lieutenants (Liam Bonner, Craig Irvin, Gabriel Preisser) were especially notable. Chorus, orchestra and conductor Michael Christie acquitted themselves nobly.
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