Review: Fort Worth Opera’s ‘Silent Night’ is a dramatic spectacle

05/04/2014 11:26 PM

05/04/2014 11:27 PM

Fort Worth Opera saved its most dramatic production of the season for last. Kevin Puts’ Silent Night engrossed a large audience in Bass Hall on Sunday afternoon. It received the ultimate compliment: dead silence throughout its more than two-hour length. Almost zero shuffling or coughing.

This is an opportune year for staging Puts’ young opera. It is based on a real-life incident that occurred 100 years ago this December when World War I was just months old.

British, German and French troops decided to stop fighting each other and start fraternizing. Their commanders and governments were outraged. The impromptu Christmas Eve truce could have been the impetus for a rethinking of the war and admission that it was a gigantic mistake. Instead the war became the greatest conflagration of its time, with much worse to come.

The direct antecedent of the opera is a 2005 French film, Joyeux Noël, on the same subject. The Minnesota Opera commissioned Puts and librettist Mark Campbell to create an operatic version of the film. It premiered in Minnesota in 2011 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2012.

Puts’ score is a major factor in the success of Silent Night. Listening to his music is a consistently pleasant experience. He employs dissonance when the drama calls for it, but he has a gift for creating appealing melody and establishing a haunting atmosphere.

He even has an amazing knack for imitating old styles. A soprano-tenor duet that comes soon after the opening notes sounds like something out of 18th-century opera (this fits the plot). There are other places that seem to be references to music of the past.

Puts’ own style is striking. Among passages that particularly impressed me were a fine Act 1 chorus, a beautiful aria for the female lead, also in Act 1, and a highly atmospheric instrumental episode that projected a haunting sadness at the beginning of Act 2.

A recording of the opera would no doubt repay repeated listenings.

The very large cast has some outstanding members. Among them are soprano Ava Pine as the female lead, tenor Chad Johnson as a German draftee whose profession is opera singer, baritone Craig Irvin as a German officer and baritone Jesse Enderle as a British officer.

Joe Illick conducted a subtle, often dramatic and always atmospheric performance by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

The physical production is outstanding. Sets by Francis O’Connor are like something from an old photograph depicting the mayhem of World War I battlefields. Costumes by Karin Kopischke give the same sense.

Lighting, projections and sound (be warned) are also battlelike. Marcus Dilliard, Andrezj Goulding and C. Andrew Mayer are those responsible. Octavio Cardenas’ powerful staging keeps it a consistently focused drama.

One unusual point: The opera’s languages are English, French, German, Italian and Latin. In what may be a first, there’s a trio in which each character sings a different one of the first three languages. Projected translations are in Spanish and English.

The opera festival will end this weekend with performances of With Blood, With Ink at McDavid Studio on Saturday afternoon, Silent Night on Saturday night at Bass Hall and Così fan tutte on Sunday afternoon at Bass Hall.

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