Monday, September 24, 2012

Minnesota Opera's Silent Night


It’s pretty hard to top the true story of soldiers laying down their arms for an unauthorized Christmas truce, but the Minnesota Opera managed to do it one better on Saturday night.
At the sold-out world premiere ofSilent Night, a new piece underwritten by super-art-patrons Margaret and Angus Wurtele, tenor William Burden came down with a case of laryngitis so extreme that he had to lip sync his role while Brad Benoit, a former resident artist with the Minnesota Opera, sang it for him on the floor next to the audience.
Aside from the night’s personal drama, the upcoming 100th anniversary of World War I provides us with an excellent chance to reflect on the ways that war challenges our inner humanity.
Silent Night is based on the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel. The trifold narrative follows a Scottish, French and German regiment in the trenches during Christmas 1914. Already desperate to end a war that was supposed to finish in weeks (and would drag on for four more years), the soldiers grasp for anything to remind them of home.
Each nation sends its’ troops something to make Christmas in the trenches more bearable – think whiskey, champagne, Christmas trees – but nothing brings them more peace than Christmas carols.
Beginning with a single bagpipe in the Scottish lines and continuing with songs from a German opera star-turned-private, common music inspires the troops to come out of their trenches and into no-man’s land, where they declare a truce that lasts for another two days.
The physical imitation of three battle-torn nations laying down their weapons to play sports and receive mass is awe-inspiring, and begs the question: what could the world be like if nations simply refused to fight each other?
It is also shockingly funny. The absurdity of this intensely personal story is hard to grasp until you actually see these battered men trying to communicate hospitably when they are supposed to be sworn enemies.
Silent Night’s scope is enormous, with 23 men reenacting battle scenes onstage. Actual WWI footage, smoke, gunshots, a revolving circular stage reminiscent of Les Miserables’ set, falling snow and the opera’s ever-present scrims bring the audience to the trenches. The set is busy to the point of distracting, but effectively war-like.
Unfortunately, the music in this production fell a little flat. The Minnesota Opera commissioned new composer Kevin Puts for the piece, and while the orchestral arrangements are gorgeous, the vocal talents of the cast are simply underutilized. The show’s shining moments, a prayer sung by opera star Anna Sorensen (Karin Wolverton), one ensemble carol and an intermittent bagpipe, are too few and far between. It would be nice to see such an extensive cast used less conversationally and more interactively, as the opera’s theme would suggest.
Another new production based on this story, All Is Calm, is coming to Hennepin Avenue in December. Until then, Silent Night is a nice way to get into the holiday spirit, and a good stop if you’re a fan of intense live theater effects.
Silent Night continues on Nov. 15, 17, 19 and 20 at the Ordway Center. The Minnesota Opera's next performance is Werther, at the end of January. For more information visitmnopera.org.