Saturday, December 28, 2013

Afternoon at the Opera

I spent one afternoon this holiday season watching Minnesota Opera's staging of "Silent Night," a modern opera based on the 1914 Christmas truce of World War I. The staging was remarkable; the turntable stage made for graceful and seamless transitions between the three battle companies. The projection of a real photograph from the trenches as backdrop was masterful  Costumes were lovely, although it looked like some soldiers were wearing Stone Age-era fur tunics. The line woman, Karin Wolverton, was delightful, with a gorgeous voice and an impressive ability to act, which not all opera singers have. Her solo that began "Anytime, anywhere" was, for me, the highlight of the entire opera. William Burden was suitably Teutonic as her German lover and the 'hero' of the piece, but frankly, I found his acting a bit hammy and over the top (online reviews definitely put me in the minority on this, although I found his voice fine). Far more subtle was Liam Bonner as the French lieutenant.

But I was disappointed. There were several scenes where singers were simultaneously singing in German, English, and French, and the different melodies and languages made my inexperienced ear cringe. Once was a interesting way to highlight the simultaneous human reactions at play; more than once, and it became rather dreary and incomprehensible.

The whole essence of the Christmas truce was that the troops, German and British and some French, sang carols together. Sure, they exchanged small gifts and played football, but it was the knowledge that they had sung Christmas carols together that captured the public's sympathy and tugged at heartstrings. The knowledge that recognition of a beloved carol, even one sung in a foreign tongue by a stranger and enemy, could still move a soldier to abandon the fight, even for a few moments, is why this story remains familiar and poignant, especially so now that the last WWI veterans have died.While carols were sung by each company during the opera, there was no simultaneous singing of the same carol in the different languages, which would have been a magnificent focal point. Maybe that's why the writer didn't include such a scene. But knowing the history of the actual event this opera was based on left this viewer disappointed when that single moment of shared humanity didn't happen on stage, and left me unfulfilled.

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