Eloquent WWI opera in East Coast premiere in Pa.

Last Updated: Sun, Feb 10, 2013 14:30 hrs

A melancholy sense of lost opportunity pervades "Silent Night," an opera that tells of a moment in World War I when soldiers from hostile nations joined together for an informal truce on Christmas Eve, 1914.

And the music by composer Kevin Puts, setting a fast-paced, trilingual libretto by Mark Campbell, conveys this mood with considerable power, especially when the impassioned voices of the young soldiers blend in song.

First produced by the Minnesota Opera in 2011 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, "Silent Night" received its East Coast premiere on Friday night in a performance by Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music.

Much of the evening's success is due to the production, the same one seen in Minnesota and featuring many of the same singers and again directed by Eric Simonson. It uses a magnificent revolving set by Francis O'Connor that consists of a bare platform elevated on sandbags to represent the battlefield in Belgium where events take place. As one scene melts into the next, small structures rotate on and off for the German troops on one side and the French and Scots on the other. In the background, a decaying church with bell tower looms mournfully over the action.

Enhancing this set are video projections by Andrzej Goulding, lighting designs by Marcus Dilliard and sounds effects by C. Andrew Mayer. All three play a particularly crucial role in the elaborate battle scene early in the first act.

"Silent Night" is adapted from a 2005 French movie, "Joyeux Noel," that in turn was inspired by a real incident when soldiers from the three armies agreed to lay down their arms for one night. They celebrate the holiday together with music and drink, but word soon reaches their generals and the men are punished for daring to consort with the enemy. By the final curtain, all the soldiers have been sent off to face hazardous duty on other front lines and the battlefield stands empty — and silent.

It's a bleak tale, redeemed by the humanity that shines through in the soldiers' yearning for peace and brotherhood. Puts captures this feeling with a score that is tinged with dissonance but deeply melodic, at times reminiscent of Britten, Poulenc, even Puccini. Among the highlights: an aria by the French lieutenant in which he breaks off from tallying his regiment's casualties to muse about his wife and their unborn child; a trio for the three lieutenants, accompanied by lush, elegiac strings, as they sip coffee and agree to bury their dead; and a chorus for the soldiers in which they sing overlapping phrases from their letters home describing wonderment at the truce.

The one serious miscalculation is the inclusion of a love story (carried over from the movie) between a German soldier, an opera singer named Nikolaus Sprink, and a female opera star, Anna Sorensen. The scenes between them strike an artificial note at odds with the gritty realism of the rest, and Anna, ironically, is a less believable character than other women who barely appear (the French lieutenant's wife) or are never seen at all (the mothers of a French and a Scottish soldier).

As Lt. Audebert, baritone Liam Bonner sings with earnest warmth and supple tone, while another baritone, Andrew Wilkowske, creates a vivid impression as his ill-starred aide-de-camp, Ponchel. Tenor Zach Borichevsky is clarion-voiced as Jonathan Dale, the initially reluctant Scottish soldier who comes to hate the Germans when they kill his brother. Tenor William Burden brings his usual lyrical sweetness to the role of Sprink, while soprano Kelly Kaduce struggles with the unflattering, cruelly high role of Anna. Conductor Michael Christie leads the ensemble in a bracing performance of the colorful score.

There are four more performances through Feb. 17.

An AP Entertainment Review

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