Silent Night, Minnesota Opera

had been highly anticipated in the Twin Cities for over the past
year, which the company had work-shopped the opera with its Resident Artist
singers, tweaking vocal parts, shoring up orchestral textures, as well as
readying the Minnesota Opera’s fan base for a different kind of opera
outside of its more traditional programming. Anticipation was also high for
this particular performance, as only the Opera Company of Philadelphia had
contributed to the commission, and several representatives of interested
companies were in the audience to scout this opera for their prospective

Based upon a true World War I story, Christian Carion’s 2005 film
Joyeux NoÎl, depicted an incident during World War I near the French
border. Three encampments, Scottish, French and German, encircled a
battlefield. After bloody fighting, soldiers called an unofficial truce for
Christmas day, 1914. The film’s compelling message of religious unity and
the commonality of the human condition, all in the midst of waging war,
inspired Dale Johnson, artistic director of the Minnesota Opera, to commission
Kevin Puts to translate the film into operatic form.

Silent Night is Puts’s first opera, though his career boasts
a variety of orchestral and chamber works commissioned and performed by leading
orchestras, ensembles and soloists throughout North America, Europe and the Far
East. Johnson provided Puts with significant dramaturgical support partnering
the composer with veteran librettist Mark Campbell and director Eric Simonson.
“Eric’s not only a wonderful director, he’s an accomplished
writer himself,” Johnson said. “So we put him and Mark in the mix
to really make sure this young composer had the kind of support he needed to
create the piece.” (Opera News, 2011)

Despite the gamble of hiring a composer with no operatic compositional
experience, Silent Night is arguably one of Minnesota Opera’s
most masterful achievements in recent years. The company’s $1.5 million
budget for this work was 50 percent larger than a normal season production,
supported by their New Work’s Initiative. The production thus boasted
polished performers across the board, as well as a visually realistic yet
imaginative set, including a shockingly violent battle scene that opens the
opera. Francis O’Connor’s ingenious staging, K‰rin
Kopischke’s military costumes hit the mark, with Marcus Dilliard’s
lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s digital projections tastefully inserted
to heighten the dramatic effect.

MNO_2360.gifKarin Wolverton as Anna S¯rensen

The one drawback of the premiere performance was the illness of the lead
tenor, William Burden, in the role of Nikolaus Sprink. Burden was able to walk
the role of Sprink, while former resident artist Brad Benoit, who had
work-shopped the role last year, sang from the wings. Benoit gave a solid
performance, despite having received the call only hours before the
performance. It was clear, however, that there lacked some finesse and power in
many of the soaring musical lines, as Benoit was eager to end the phrase while
the orchestra clung to ritardandos originally dictated by Burden. The
character of Sprink is a German opera singer manning the front lines, and Puts
places much of the musical emphasis and beauty on this character vocal lines,
which were unfortunately not delivered to their fullest on opening night.

MNO_1228.gifTroy Cook as Father Palmer and John Robert Lindsey as Jonathan Dale

However, John Robert Lindsey’s Jonathan, Andrew Wilkowske’s
Ponchel and the trio of lieutenant (performed by Liam Bonner, Craig Irvin, and
Gabriel Preisser) achieved the most captivating musical moments. Bonner’s
clarion baritone and grounded stage presence was of special note. With his
flexible yet full instrument rising to the role’s high dramatic tasks,
Lindsey is a young tenor to watch,

Though the production and performers delivered an outstanding performance,
the composition itself lacked many things that make opera opera. As an
accomplished orchestral composer, Puts’ orchestral writing knows no
bounds, and encompasses high emotional ranges with striking instrumental colors
and textures. The opening battle scene evokes the rhythmic intensity and
sharpness of Bernstein’s Westside Story and the harmonic clash
and tension of Gustav Holst’s Mars.

MNO_2674.gifLiam Bonner as Lieutenant Audebert, Gabriel Preisser as Lieutenant Gordon and Craig Irvin as Lieutenant Horstmayer

But, there seem to be no real musical moments in the vocal writing. There is
no pivotal aria that lingers in the mind after the performance finishes, and
most of the vocal writing is more of a recitative style, with fewer soaring
lines. The writing is more through-composed, dramatically trucking along at a
good pace in Act I, but losing steam in Act II. There are also many silences in
the vocal parts, and Puts seems to give the orchestra the heavier lifting to
carry the drama.

Puts will obviously learn from his experience writing his first opera. His
compositional style, especially in the orchestra, is attractive to a more
modern ear, evoking orchestral soundtracks of this generation. If he can better
apply his knowledge for color, harmonic tension, and rhythmic intensity to his
vocal writing, he will be formidable.

Sarah Luebke

image_description=William Burden as Nikolaus Sprink [Photo 2011 © Michal Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera]
product_title=Kevin Puts: Silent Night
product_by=Click here for cast and production details.
product_id=Above: William Burden as Nikolaus Sprink

Photos 2011 © Michal Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera