I was excited when I found out that Atlanta Opera had programmed “Silent Night” by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell: I like what I’ve heard of Puts music and the subject is one that I’ve always found interesting. It’s about the WWI Christmas Truce of 1914, a rather remarkable pause in hostilities in what would become one of the most horrifying wars in history. Along some parts of the front during the truce, soldiers of all sides and nationalities left the trenches and fraternized in the middle of the conflict zone. In one area, a soccer match actually broke out and the brass had a hard time restarting hostilities once it was over.
This particular telling of the story is based on the film created on the subject, “Joyeaux Noel.” The action takes place in a giant mausoleum with three levels, the top of which was home to a unit of Scottish soldiers, the middle French, and the bottom German. Behind the German camp on the bottom was a pile of tomb stones, which also flanked the stage on either side. Before the mausoleum was a raised stage with a step down in front. When doing scenes off the battle field, a screen was lowered to serve as a facade for the mausoleum with a plaque from a British memorial to WWI and another, translucent screen was lowered just behind the proscenium onto which a frame was projected to set scenes, first to project post-cards with names of the locations used in the prologue and next in a Christmas ball for officers behind the front lines. There was no moment in the performance that didn’t include at least some of these memento mori, never letting us forget that these were soldiers in a deadly situation that would escalate to become one of the most brutal wars ever fought. Even before the show and during the intermission there was a projection of the names and dates of death of soldiers from the State of Georgia who died in WWI, making the gravity of the war even more immediate and personal.
As to the story, there is a prologue giving some small background on what drew the main characters who drive the story to the war. A German opera singer was effectively conscripted. One young Scotsman dragged his little brother into it, who vowed to watch after his brazen older sibling. A French lieutenant, who turns out to be the son of a general, had to go even though his wife was pregnant with their first son. After that, it tells of how the conflict was much less quick and noble than promised and everyone was tired of it come December. The younger of the Scottish brothers had to leave his older brother dying in the field of battle. The French lieutenant is too cautious with his soldiers, with whom he has developed an affinity, and is being threatened with reassignment. The German opera singer has become increasingly jaded and nihilistic.
As Christmas eve falls, each of the three units receive treats: the Germans get festive trees; the French get wine and sausages, and the Scots get whiskey and a set of bagpipes. The German opera singer has been called to give a concert for the generals behind the front line and meets up with his girlfriend who insists on returning to the front lines with him. Upon his return, the Scots are singing a song to the accompaniment of the bagpipes and, once they are done, he begins to sing to his German comrades in arms. As he sings, the bagpipes begin accompanying him and he decides to run out into no-man’s land with a small Christmas tree above his head, singing even louder to the allies who continue to accompany him. Finally the lieutenants of each company come out under white flags and negotiate a truce for the evening, with the German translating between the Scot and the Frenchman. The soldiers then all pile into the battle field as fellow humans rather than as belligerents, where they share their food and look at each others pictures. Those who can speak a shared language do and those who can’t still find ways to communicate. The famous soccer match is somewhat played out in the background at one point. The truce is ultimately extended another day so that the dead can be buried. The Generals are angry by the truce and reassign their units to unpleasant locations.
The music used to tell this tale was really great in and of itself and the performances were excellent. I loved the use of the three languages in the libretto: it helped to highlight the differences between the Scots and the French and the fact that Germans had to translate between the two even though they were allies and the German on the opposite side. The direction and the lighting design were both great, too.
Unfortunately, the tech crew left a lot to be desired: lighting cues were off slightly and video projections and scene shifts weren’t as smooth as they should have been. The acoustics were also pretty awful. The Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre is a fairly unpleasant place to hear an opera at the best of times: the balcony is not worth the money or the time because the voices barely make it up there while the orchestra is almost amplified by the pit; the mezzanine is merely tolerable if you aren’t in the front few rows and if you aren’t sitting in the middle section then you are twisting the entire performance because the seats aren’t actually pointed at the stage. This was even worse, though, because of some of the novelties of the staging. The three-story mausoleum sounded more muffled the higher you went. The French were quieter than the Germans and the Scots sounded like they were singing behind the main curtain. I know very little French but found myself having an easier time understanding the French without looking at the super titles than the Scots when they were on their respective levels of the mausoleum. The fore-screen used for projections also impacted the sound: just as there is a slight glare that somewhat blurs the action behind the screen, there was a slight muffling that particularly dampened the higher notes from the singers behind it. My perspective on this was from the middle rear of the mezzanine, so all of it may have been more tolerable from the orchestra level (which has its own issues for line of sight that I was trying to avoid in my seat selection).
The narrative was very touching, but it didn’t go into the level of detail expressing the feelings and motivations of the characters that we normally get in an Opera. Arias were brief and even choruses tended to end far too soon. The pacing was more like a movie, which makes a certain amount of sense since the opera is based on a film, but it made it less operatic and more like, well, a stage adaptation of a movie, only with really good music. The strength of film is that you can establish a visual richness that brings a lot of context to a story that you can’t get on a stage. Opera’s strength, on the other hand, is that the form allows you to express the rich emotional lives of the characters that drive a story: it helps the audience feel more engaged with the individual characters and, thus, more invested in the story. The narrative of “Silent Night” failed to make me care more about the characters and their experiences than their basic roles in the driving the narrative forward such that I didn’t feel quite so moved by the story as a whole. And the setting, though dramatic, wasn’t quite as terrifying as a realistic depiction of trench warfare that accompanies the narrative of the film to make up for the emotional shortfall. Coming in with some knowledge of the real stories behind the more remarkably peaceful truces of Christmas of 1914 made some of the scenes moving for me, but I think that I’d have felt somewhat emotionally distant from the story if I were relying merely on what was on stage. I think that I felt more distant because I was so let down: this could have been a very powerful opera if only it were written as an opera rather than as just as an attempt to adapt a movie. I feel that I would enjoy a suite or two of concert music abstracted from the score, but there wasn’t enough to the arias or choruses for them to add depth to the tale much less stand alone as concert pieces.
In all, I loved Puts’ music but felt that the opera itself was only so-so. This is the third main-stage production by the Atlanta Opera that I’ve attended: “Porgy & Bess” in 2011 and “La Boheme” last year were the first two. This is the third time that I was struck by the number of errors by the tech crew. The direction and performances have generally been solid, but it’s hard for me to justify shelling out the cash and the time to come see operas in such an unsuitable venue with stagecraft that seems more appropriate, in terms of quality, to community theater than a regional opera company. I’ll probably still attend the occasional contemporary opera here and there if they stage ones that interest me, and I have plans to attend one of the Discovery Series shows that they’re putting on this season, but I can’t see myself ever becoming a season subscriber if they stay at the Cobb Energy Centre with such shoddy stagecraft.