• Silent Night at Opera Philadelphia - a review

    Silent Night, opera in two acts. Music by Kevin Puts. Libretto by Mark Campbell, based on the screenplay by Christian Carion for the 2005 film Joyeux Noël, directed by Christian Carion, and inspired by true events in 1914 during World War I.

    Performed in German, French, English, Italian, and Latin, with English supertitles
    Venue: The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA

    Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus
    Conductor - Michael Christie
    Chorus Master - Elizabeth Braden
    Stage Director - Eric Simonson
    Set Designer - Francis O'Connor
    Lighting Designer - Marcus Dillard
    Choreographer - Dough Scholz-Carlson


    Kelly Kaduce as Anne Sørensen
    William Burden as Nikolaus Sprink
    Liam Bonner as Lieutenant Audebert
    Craig Irvin as Lieutenant Horstmayer
    Gabriel Preisser as Lieutenant Gordon
    Troy Cook as Father Palmer
    Andrew Wilkowske as Ponchel
    Zach Borichevsky as Jonathan Dale
    Brandon Cedel as William Dale
    Albert J. Gluekert as Kronprinz
    Harold Wilson as French General
    Thomas Shivone as British Major
    Angela Mortelaro as Madeleine Audebert
    Nicholas Hay as Gueusselin
    Christopher Hodges as German General

    There is still a performance scheduled in this run, tomorrow, Sunday 2/17/13 at 2:30 PM.

    Click [here] for tickets.


    We have covered extensively this opera, with one long article [here] that contains the synopsis, video clips, and an exclusive short interview with Liam Bonner (Lt. Audebert), and another one containing an exclusive long interview with Kevin Puts, the composer, [here].

    This is a review of the 2-15-13 performance.


    After interviewing in person Liam Bonner about his role in Silent Night, and over the phone Kevin Puts, and after listening to the entire opera on NPR and watching the movie on which it is based, I decided to travel to Philadelphia to see the opera on stage. The trip proved to be a very pleasant one. It was my first time watching a performance by Opera Philadelphia. This company, previously known as Opera Company of Philadelphia - they have abbreviated their name - has a longer history, since it is the result of the 1975 merger of Philadelphia Lyric Opera and Philadelphia Grand Opera. I recommend this organization as very solid and competent. First of all, their two venues are beautiful. They alternate their operas between the ultra-modern Kimmel Center for the Performance Arts, and the traditional Academy of Music.

    This is the Kimmel:

    And this is the Academy of Music:

    Another great feature of Opera Philadelphia for us, Americans, is that they have engaged in a 10-year cycle of presenting one new American opera every year. Silent Night is their second - the first one was Dark Sisters by Nico Muhly; next season it will be the turn of A Coffin in Egypt by Ricky Ian Gordon, for which none less than Grande Dame of opera Frederica von Stade is coming out of retirement to star in the leading role. Future seasons already have contracts for Theodore Morrison's Oscar in 2015 (which is also being given this coming summer at Santa Fe Opera), and Cold Mountain, by another Pulitzer Prize-winner, composer Jennifer Higdon for 2016 - our dear Jay Hunter Morris will be in this one, alongside Isabel Leonard.

    This initiative, called "The American Repertoire Program" and directed by noted American baritone Nathan Gunn (Eric Owen is also a member of the Council that is organizing this series under Nathan's leadership) fills my heart with satisfaction, and other opera companies in the United States should follow their steps.

    Dear readers, allow me to be of service to the itinerant operagoer who decides to follow my footsteps and visit Opera Philadelphia (it's definitely worth it!).

    Very convenient to both venues - across the street from the Academy of Music, and one block from the Kimmel Center, is the very comfortable Double Tree hotel that names all its lounges, bars, and restaurants after musical terms.

    From my window I could see the opera house:

    Philadelphia's beautiful Avenue of the Arts had banners advertising Silent Night:

    And to complete my touristic info, I had pre-theater dinner in a very charming French brasserie four blocs from the opera house, called Parc (corner of Locust Street and 18th Street) - delicious, well priced food and wine. I had items that reminded me of my years in Paris, and I'd say that Parc wouldn't be ashamed if it were located in France. They do serve more substantial fare, but I went for smaller courses, not feeling like eating a full meal before the show: I had assorted oysters (half a dozen), then steak tartare, then escargots in hazelnut butter, and for desert I ordered the delicious Baba au Rhum:

    To go with this yummy (sort of) light fare, I had a glass of French sparkling wine (Vin Mousseux Marquis de La Tour Brut, Val du Loire), then a glass of Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine "Sur Lie" Domaine de la Quilla, and with the Baba au Rhum, a chalice of dessert wine Montbazillac Petit Paris. All three were delicious.

    With a generous tip to the charming waitress, the tab total was about $105, not bad for four (small) courses and three glasses of wine.

    Here is Parc's facade:


    Ah yes, the opera (laughs).

    Well, it was gorgeous - but not without some downsides.

    The evening started with a free lecture for patrons, that highlighted the real-life story behind the opera, but commented little about the music. I'd have loved some more details on Kevin Puts' score, which were just very lightly mentioned. The telling of the story - a sort of spoken synopsis, however, was eloquent and articulate.

    Staging and set design/lighting were simply phenomenal. This is a complex story with multiple scenes that depict events in no fewer than nine locations - a village in Scotland, an opera house in Berlin, an apartment in Paris, the no-man's land of a war battle, the three trenches of the German, Scottish, and French soldiers, a castle in the German-occupied part of the French territory, and a train station. Well, the stage at the Academy of Music is rather smallish. Still, the set designer and the director were able to efficiently switch between all these different locations using a circular stage where the various sets rotated, and were pushed in and out of view by the chorus members and singers themselves. Also, a thin screen covered the proscenium for half of the first act which contains the battle scenes, and images were projected on it, making the battle very realistic. The back of the stage also got projections with sunsets and dawns, bomb blasts, starry night skies, a locomotive, and falling snow. The visuals were very beautiful and striking, and perfectly re-created the atmosphere of the movie.

    Also, the large number of characters and supranumeraries were well managed by the stage director, and the battle scenes' choreography was skilful and convincing (much more so than the same scenes for the world premiere at Minnesota Opera, done with about the same creative team - but they must have made some corrections along the way).

    Maestro Michael Christie was excellent. He handled perfectly the wild variety of this score, that goes from atonal to Mozart-inspired scenes in an opera-within-the opera, and includes moments of minimalism, silent stretches, and a capella stretches, as well as cacophonic loud sounds in the battle scenes, not to forget a harmonica and a bagpipe. Equally good was the chorus, which is one of my preferred ways to gauge the quality of an opera company. Opera Philadelphia made the cut.

    The singers - I know that once I interview some singers, especially when more than once (this was the third time I met Liam Bonner in person), I get a bit protective... so I could be accused of bias. But believe me, dear readers, there is no bias. Liam was outstanding. This young baritone needs more exposure. He is truly excellent, and I wonder why the specialized press has not been talking more about him. After all, his career has been very solid already, with two roles at the Met under his belt (one of them, broadcast live in HD), and several appearances in other major national companies like Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera, Washington National Opera, as well as abroad at the English National Opera, Wexford Festival, and Opéra du Québec.

    He is tall, handsome (ladies, pay attention! This was confirmed by my young female friend who attended the opera with me), with a great voice, and excellent acting, not to forget that Liam is smart and understands the psychology of his characters very well, being able to add interesting details to the character's depiction on stage (like he explained to me when we discussed certain ideas he exchanged with Thaddeus Strassberger, stage director, when perfecting the title character in Le Roi Malgré Lui). Hey, artistic directors, pay attention to Liam Bonner!

    Here is Liam, as Lieutenant Audebert (the credit is embedded in the picture):

    I've seen Liam live on stage as the Conte di Luna in Il Trovatore, as the title role in Le Roi Malgré Lui, and now as Lieutenant Audebert in Silent Night. Not only he is already excellent, but he seems to be improving even more as time goes by, since I liked him even better in Le Roi than in Il Trovatore, and now liked him in Silent Nigth even above Le Roi. When we met backstage, Liam disclosed his upcoming plans to sing the title role in Billy Budd at LA Opera in February and March of 2014, in his joking self-deprecating manner, saying that he'll need to learn how to sing, to do well in this role. Well, Liam, that's something you know already... (after all, he has a Peter Grimes under his belt).

    Given the artist's charming acting abilities and good comedic flair (I also saw him in a funny Albert Herring on video), I look forward to his Einsestein in Die Fledermaus at Houston Grand Opera from September 23 through November 10 of 2013.

    LA's Albert Herring

    I told Liam that his vocal performance for me was the highlight of the night (together with Bill Burden's), and he humbly credited it to Kevin Puts, who gave him such beautiful lines and provided that ethereal minimalist accompaniment for his big aria in Act I (he created the role at Minnesota Opera for the world premiere).

    Well, enough on Liam. I know that I'm unashamedly promoting this singer - yes, I do like him very much, but hey, he deserves it!

    William Burden was also phenomenal. Together with Liam, he carried the night, and not only sang beautifully, but had great stage presence and dramatic impact. Silent Night depends a lot on a good Nikolaus Sprink, and Burden was just perfect.

    Unfortunately I can't say the same about Kelly Kaduce. The role of Anna Sørensen in my opinion is the third one that requires great dramaticism to enhance the psychological impact of this piece, and Ms. Kaduce seemed cold and uninvolved in her acting. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt; maybe she just had an off-night, but comparing her performance with that of her predecessor who created the role (granted, I've only seen clips so, don't take my word for it), I much prefer Ms. Karin Wolverton's rendition, seen here:

    Craig Irvin as Lieutenant Horstmayer for me was a better actor than singer - which may have been a consequence of the strong competition provided by Liam, Bill, and Gabriel Preisser (Lieutenant Gordon - who also has a potent voice) who were in most scenes with him and tended to drown his voice.

    I liked the comprimario role of Ponchel, by Andrew Wilkowske. Zach Borichevsky on the other hand was a relatively weak link as Jonathan Dale, due to a lack of projection. Other comprimarios were correct.

    About the opera itself, I am completely convinced of its value, and I'll say that our American operatic community is lucky to count, from now on, on gifted composer Kevin Puts' newfound love for opera. I thought that this was very impressive work, especially given that it is his first one. He seems to be gobbling the understanding of the genre in big gulps, and I look forward to his second opera already in the works, The Manchurian Candidate, slated to be premiered by Minnesota Opera hopefully in a couple of years. The opera really works on stage, is well paced, and carries a lot of pathos, especially in the second act, which is paradoxical because the first act actually contains the most pungent scene - but keep reading, the next paragraphs may explain the paradox.

    Without diminishing the merit of this work, I do have a small complaint. I'm not sure if this was the doing of the librettist Mr. Campbell, or was the focus of the stage director Mr. Simonson - but I would have preferred less comic relief. There were too many occasions when the emphasis on the comedic elements (which in the movie do exist but have a more cynical, bitter-sweet feel) drew laughter in the public, which in my opinion ruined the dramatic impact of certain scenes. Well, of course, this is art, and one can't please everybody. Just like I wasn't particularly pleased with this element, other operagoers may have loved it, and may have found that such a heavy topic was appropriately lightened by these moments of laughter.

    But let's consider, for instance, the pivotal point of the movie, when Nikolaus Sprink stands up from the German trenches and walks right into the no-man's land, risking certain death, and sings out-loud "Adeste Fideles" by John Francis Wade (the voice in the movie is by Rollando Villazón). This was a goose-bumping, tear-provoking scene, with great emotional impact and tension. Of course, Mr. Puts couldn't use "Adestes Fideles," it's not his music. So he substituted with an aria of his own. But it wasn't as solemn, and the entire scene was permeated by little jokes from various soldiers, unlike in the movie, when the soldiers listen with respect to the music and to the bagpipe picking up the same musical line - in a sense, the movie underlines the power of music as the force that unites them, more than the opera. Then, of course, the fact that the movie also has in the voice of Mr. Villazón the immensely recognizable Christmas carol that lends its title to the opera, "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" by Franz Xaver Gruber, doesn't help Mr. Puts; it's unfair competition... After all, the beloved Christmas carol has been declared "intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO and it is utterly irreplaceable. Our composer did provide beautiful fare to make up for the fact that again, he couldn't borrow for this opera music that is not his, and was more successful this time than in the make-up for "Adestes Fidelis." Anna's singing for the troops, in this clip that I've included above, was just as effective (or more effective) than in the movie, given the great aria Mr. Puts wrote for her - I just wish he gave to Sprink an equally sublime one, for the most important moment of the opera.

    Of course I understand that a libretto must be more compact than its source - but again, the movie gets the upper hand in the scene of the mass in Latin, too brief in the opera, and without the same eerie atmosphere. But if my humble self who has never written a libretto - unlike Mr. Campbell who has a handful under his belt, and they've been praised by critics - can deserve to be heard, my advice would be to rewrite a bit the relative length of certain scenes. After all, this is not a very long opera. Its run time is about two hours. If we had two hours and ten minutes, with a more elaborate scene when Sprink makes his pivotal move (and then Mr. Puts would have to provide a bit weightier music for that scene, and Mr. Campbell would tone down the jokes), and with a longer Latin mass, some of the emotional impact of the movie would be recovered in the opera (and also, I liked the musicality of the Latin words and the rhythm of the soldier's response in the movie, and was expecting some treatment of it in the opera). Again, the opera is at no obligation to repeat its source. But in my view, it shouldn't cut down on the duration and impact of the exactly two best scenes of the source. If the preoccupation was to keep it under two hours, there were other parts that could have been shortened - not these two! And focusing too much on comic relief during these very dramatic moments, seems to cheapen a bit the result.

    Well, here I am, engaging in atypical (for me) harsh criticism... for an opera that I loved! Go figure! On the other hand maybe that scene was too sentimental in the movie, and maybe the Mass occupied too central a role. Still, may the composer and the librettist, if they read this, see it as constructive criticism - I loved their piece, and would like it to be even better, in my enthusiasm and strong commitment to new American opera (it is not for nothing that I published three very long articles on this piece, and drove 8 hours up to Philly and 8 hours down - under heavy snow on my way back). Re-writings are common in the history of opera, especially for a composer's first one, so it wouldn't be inappropriate for Mr. Puts and Mr. Campbell to go back to the drawing board on these details, as pretentious as my humble opinion may sound to them.

    Anyway, enough nitpicking. It is a very good opera, in a very good production, and whoever reads this and is at driving (or flying) distance from Philadelphia, should click immediately on the above link and look for the last few tickets for the last show of the run, tomorrow afternoon. You won't regret it.

    And then, stay tuned; I heard from the composer that the piece is coming at some point (to be announced) to Fort Worth Opera.

    Grading it:

    Score, A
    Libretto, B+
    Conducting and Orchestra, A+
    Chorus, A
    Staging/Sets/Lighting, A+
    Singing/acting, three leading roles:
    Nikolaus Sprink, A+
    Lieutenant Audebert, A+
    Anna Sørensen, B-
    Singing/acting, comprimarios, B+
    Venue, A- (beautiful and with great acoustics, but not a lot of leg room, and columns hide parts of the stage from certain seats)

    Overall, A, highly recommended. This opera is here to stay. I believe it will find a place in the repertory.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Silent Night at Opera Philadelphia started by Almaviva View original post

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