Christmastime earlier this decade — must have been 2011 or ‘12 — I was out Christmas shopping and a story came on NPR that was so intriguing I distinctly recall sitting in the parking lot of Joseph-Beth Booksellers listening until it was over.
It was about an opera that recounted a very unusual event at the beginning of World War I. On Christmas Eve, French, German and Scottish troops fighting in Belgium called a Christmas truce, sang songs together and exchanged other merriments and courtesies into the next day.
Immediately, it was an opera I wanted to see, and fortunately for us in Lexington, the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre has an enduring interest in new American opera. This weekend at the Singletary Center for the Arts, we are getting our first look at that show, “Silent Night” by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, and it is so much more than I expected.
Far from a mere recounting of a historic event, “Silent Night” is a beautiful portrait of universal humanity and moral indictment of the machinery of war that grinds up bodies, hearts, minds and nations. It is also filled with gorgeous and unsettling music, purposeful storytelling, and, here in Lexington, it is presented by a company with the skill to pull all of that off.
The UK Opera Theatre is the first collegiate opera company in the United States to present “Silent Night,” which is no small feat, considering the complexity of the music, multiple languages involved and the purposeful pacing of the story, which could stall in the hands of lesser talent. Richard Gammon, now a veteran of several UK Opera productions, guides the cast through thoughtful performances, from the leads to the chorus, to make sure most moments land with maximum impact.
This is best illustrated in the middle of Act II, when the warring parties have elected to extend their truce to give each camp time to claim and bury its dead. We go into a slow motion sequence of bodies being placed onto stretchers and carried off while crosses are placed at the front of the stage, all under Tanya Harper’s exquisite lighting and accompanied by the UK Symphony under maestro John Nardolillo’s delicate direction.
What could have been static became gut wrenching, punctuated by the almost immediate appearance of the orchestrators of the war denouncing the truce as “despicable,” “unimaginable,” “traitorous” and “immoral.” They are this story’s only bad guys.
This comes after we have witnessed the beauty of the truce as soldiers lay their arms aside and acknowledge they are not as far apart as the they seem. In early 20th Century Europe, there is the tie of geography and acknowledgment that close neighbors such as the French and the Germans may be fighting, but they share relatives, dreams and even favorite vacation spots.
This is an opera, of course, so they also share a love of beautiful music, particularly delivered by the character of Anna, sung by soprano Hyeonjeong Kim. Yes, despite it being an opera set in the almost exclusively male landscape of a 1914 war zone, Puts and Campbell figured out a way to introduce a soprano and give her several diva moments that Kim makes the most of.
The key to the show is establishing the humanity of the key participants, which Michael Pandolfo as French leader Lt. Audebert, Jeremy Kelly as a Germany’s Lt. Horstmeyer and Michael Preacely as Scotland’s Father Palmer do very well. When they wave their white flags and shake hands, we want to cheer not just for what the moment represents but that their characters found this connection.
Act I ends with new-found friends embracing under a Christmas Eve snowfall in a scene made eerie by our knowledge of history: this was the first Christmas in a war that would drag on nearly four more years and become known as “the war to end all wars.”
But it didn’t.
The last veterans of World War I have all passed away. But this weekend, we honor the veterans of many subsequent wars up to the present day, as well as the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Sunday. “Silent Night” is gaining audiences around the world — there are more than a half dozen productions in the United States this weekend — not just because it’s a terrific, compelling opera, but because it is a powerful statement and tribute.
IF YOU GO
What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of the 2012 opera with music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10, 2 p.m. Nov. 11
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall, 405 Rose St.