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Thread: Silent Night at the Cincinnati Opera

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  1. #1
    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Silent Night at the Cincinnati Opera

    10 July 2014
    Music Hall

    Music by Kevin Puts
    Libretto by Mark Campbell

    Conductor: David Charles Abell
    Director: Eric Simonson
    Chorus Master: Henri Venanzi
    Sets: Francis O’Connor
    Costumes: Kärin Kopischke
    Hair and make-up: James D. Geier
    Lighting: Marcus Dilliard
    Projection Designer: Andrzej Goulding-
    Fight Director: Gina Cerimele-Mechley
    Original Fight Choreography: Doug Scholtz-Carlson
    Original Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer
    Production Stage Manager: Whitney McAnally

    Nikolaus Sprink: Thomas Blondelle
    Anna Sørensen: Erin Wall
    Lt. Horstmayer: Craig Irvin
    Jonathan Dale: Thomas Glenn
    William Dale: Tyler Alessi
    Father Palmer: Hugh Russell
    Lt. Gordon: Gabriel Preisser
    Lt. Audebert: Philip Addis
    Ponchel: Andrew Wilkowski
    Madeleine Audebert: Adria Caffaro
    The Crown Prince (Kronprinz): Thomas Cooley
    The British Major: Thomas Dreese
    German General: Marcus Küchle
    French General: Kenneth Shaw
    Gueusselin, a French soldier: Joseph Lattanzi

    Before I share my thoughts about yesterday evening’s performance, it may be helpful if I provide a brief summary of the opera’s plot, since this isn’t a repertoire staple.
    Of course, the story is centered on an actual historic event during the first year of World War I, namely the Christmas truce in which soldiers of the opposing armies put down their weapons and celebrated the holiday together – if only for several hours. In the opera, the principal characters are the opera singers Nikolaus Sprink and Anna Sørensen, the Scottish brothers Jonathan and William Dale, and a French couple, the Audeberts. Secondary characters include the Scottish chaplain, Father Palmer; two officers of the opposing armies, Lt. Gordon and Lt. Horstmeyer; and the French General, who turns out to be Lt. Audebert’s father. Other characters are those of Lt. Audebert’s aide-de-camp Ponchel; Gueusselin, a French soldier who volunteers to infiltrate the German lines and lob a grenade at their bunker; and other senior leaders consisting of a British Major, the German Crown Prince, and a German General.
    The prologue is set in summer, 2014, when war has just broken out. Sprink is drafted, William Dale persuades his younger brother Jonathan to enlist with him, and Lt. Audebert is planning to leave his Paris apartment and join his unit despite the objections of his wife Madeleine. She’s expecting their first child and is furious with his decision to go to war. In Act I, the scene changes to a battlefield near the French border in late December. William Dale is shot in combat and Jonathan has to leave him behind. Over in the German camp, the Crown Prince has sent Christmas trees to the troops. The heir to the throne is staying in a nearby chalet, and Nikolaus has been ordered to sing for him along with Anna, who is present in the war zone on a pass. She’s in love with Nikolaus and has also arranged for him to spend the night with her, but he insists upon returning to his unit – whereupon she insists on accompanying him. Jonathan Dale writes to his mother, but says nothing of William’s death. The other Scottish soldiers decide to celebrate Christmas Eve by drinking whiskey and playing the bagpipes, while Father Palmer sings a sentimental ballad. Over in the German lines, Nikolaus hears the bagpipes and responds with a Christmas carol of his own. By the end of the act, soldiers on both sides are cautiously beginning to emerge from their bunkers, and the three lieutenants arrange a cease-fire for the night.
    Act II begins with the truce being extended on Christmas morning to allow both sides to bury their dead. Meanwhile, the news of the cease-fire has reached the various headquarters, and the British Major, French General, and the Crown Prince are not amused. All of the troops are essentially told to get back to business. When Lt. Horstmeyer prepares to return to war, Nikolaus upbraids him for his loyalty to the Fatherland, and Horstmeyer has him arrested for insubordination. Then Anna intervenes, takes Nikolaus’ hand, and prepares to lead him away. The other soldiers ignore Horstmeyer’s order to shoot. Nikolaus and Anna head for the border, where he requests asylum from the French authorities. Now the troops on both sides are beginning to pay the price for the Christmas truce. The Scottish soldiers will be sent to the front lines; the Crown Prince orders the German soldiers to Pomerania, where they’ll be facing the Russians. The French General informs Lt. Audebert that his unit will be disbanded and he will be sent to Verdun. The Lieutenant has some news for the old man, too; it seems the General now has a grandson. The opera ends with snow beginning to fall on the empty battlefield.
    I must say I was tremendously impressed by this opera and everything about yesterday evening’s performance. Messrs. Puts and Campbell have paced their work so well that it keeps the listener constantly engaged. Stage director Eric Simonson and set designer Francis O’Connor also kept the action flowing smoothly through the many scene changes – I finally saw one of the multi-purpose revolving stages often mentioned in reviews in Opernwelt and Das Opernglas in action. Like other modern operas I’ve seen, Silent Night must be experienced in the theater to be fully appreciated. Of course, that’s really true of any opera, but the visual component is so critical here that even watching a video wouldn’t do the work full justice – to say nothing of listening to an audio recording. The Act One battle scene in which William Dale is fatally shot was absolutely harrowing, while in contrast, the scene in which the soldiers in all three armies attempt to catch a little sleep on Christmas Eve was incredibly beautiful. Mr. Puts has written a lot of wonderfully lyrical music in his score as well as the harsh, loud, discordant passages that are naturally a part of an opera set in the middle of a war. Mr. Campbell has developed characters who are believable and makes us care about them. Nikolaus Sprink, for all his disgust with the war and dislike of the Kaiser and aristocracy, still loves his country deeply and is intensely pained when he and Anna turn themselves in to the French.
    Conductor David Charles Abell led a very evocative performance by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the cast was uniformly excellent. I was enormously impressed by Thomas Blondelle and Erin Wall as Nikolaus and Anna. Both have beautiful voices and handled their multilingual scenes with ease. In this opera, the Scottish soldiers sing/speak English, and the French and German soldiers each sing/speak in their respective languages. (The soloists portraying the Scottish men wisely didn’t attempt to replicate a Scottish accent, but were smart enough to use the British pronunciation of Lieutenant instead of the American one.) Ms. Wall gave a lovely rendition of the “Dona Nobis Pacem” that Anna sings to the gathered troops near the end of Act One, which is performed a cappella and is set rather high – not an easy piece to sing, I would imagine. I hope both of these wonderful artists will return here in the future. Philip Addis brought a noble, attractive baritone to Lt. Audebert, and tenor Thomas Glenn gave a powerful performance as Jonathan Dale, who is so profoundly grieved by his brother’s death and yet cannot bring himself to tell their mother the truth when he writes to her. Even later in the second act, when the men are writing to their loved ones, Jonathan is still maintaining the fiction that William is alive and well and distinguishing himself in their unit. His hatred of the Germans is corrosive. Baritone Hugh Russell was a deeply humane Father Palmer who in the end couldn’t even find comfort in his religious faith for what he witnessed. Bass-baritone Kenneth Shaw made an imposing French General, and baritone Andrew Wilkowski was a touching Ponchel, whose ritual of having coffee at a specific time each morning was his only link to his mother and home. Tenor Thomas Cooley captured the Crown Prince’s arrogant superciliousness; baritone Craig Irvin was a bluff, fundamentally kind-hearted Lt. Horstmeyer who ultimately couldn’t bring himself to shoot the escaping Nikolaus; and baritone Tyler Alessi conveyed all of William Dale’s naïve dreams of valor and gallantry as he welcomes a chance to fight in the war. Also making fine contributions to the evening were Adria Caffaro (Madeleine), Gabriel Preisser (Lt. Gordon), Thomas Driese (British Major), Joseph Lattanzi (Gueusselin), and Marcus Küchle (German General).

  2. #2
    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    Absolutely fascinating Mary. I know the story of course but didn't know it been made into an opera and what a great subject.
    I hope it's eventually released on CD.
    "The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland."
    Lucy Maud Montgomery

  3. #3
    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    I forgot to mention that when I arrived at my seat, I found a little present had been placed there for me. (Other season subscribers also received them.) The envelope not only contained a very nice thank-you note from General Director/CEO Patty Beggs and Artistic Director Evans Mirageas, but a sheet of heavy, cream-colored stock on which the first page of the opera's score had been printed and then autographed by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell. That's a real treasure, and now I need to find an appropriate frame for it.
    Since I returned to Cincinnati a few years ago, I've been very impressed by Evans Mirageas (I suspect this was his idea). He really seems to have a lot of wonderful, innovative ideas.

  4. #4
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Thank you Mary; I like very much this opera, which I've seen live in Philadelphia. At the time, Opera Lively interviewed Kevin Puts:


    We also published an extensive article on it with full synopsis, reviews, an interview with one of the singers Liam Bonner, several video clips, links to other essays, and links to an audio file of the complete piece:


    Maybe most people didn't notice this coverage, one of the most extensive to date on Opera Lively, since it was published on the local Pennsylvania section of the site.

    Here is my review of the opera, which I rated A grade:

    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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