IN HONOR OF VETERAN’S DAY, Atlanta Opera offered Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, Silent Night, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (seen Nov. 5). Silent Night is a thoughtful opera with a libretto by Mark Campbell that recounts a Christmas Eve ceasefire on a Belgian battlefield during the first months of World War I. Silent Night, which was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera New Works Initiative and debuted at the Ordway Theater in 2011, has seen subsequent performances at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Philadelphia, Opéra de Montréal, and elsewhere. Funded in part by a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Atlanta’s production was a collaboration with the the Wexford and Glimmerglass Festivals.
Silent Night is replete with dramatic and vocal possibilities. Just a few years ago, this would have been too ambitious a project for Atlanta Opera, but now that the company has an orchestra that refines itself with each performance and an artistic vision that fuses traditional staging with cinematic scope, Atlantans were finally able to enjoy something new and unexpected.
The stage was set with a scrim upon which the names of 3,000 Georgia soldiers who served and died in World War I were projected, alongside the proclamation that all men are equal in death. After a fluid prologue introducing us to key figures—opera singers Anna (Ava Pine) and Nikolaus (David Blalock) at the Berlin Opera, two brothers in a small Scottish church (Alexander Sprague and Andrew Pardini), and a young, married couple in a Paris apartment (Matthew Worth and Bryn Holdsworth)—the audience looked on as each pair learned of the war and prepared for their impending part within it.
Silent Night boasts a sizeable cast and Atlanta Opera cast several standout singers who had previous experience with Puts’s music. Texas native Ava Pine recently sang the demanding role of Anna in Fort Worth; hers is a highly placed lyric voice that sounded particularly lovely in an a cappella rendition of “Dona Nobis Pacem” in Act I. Dresden Semperoper veteran Alexander Hajek, one of the finest singers in the production, sang the role of Scottish officer Lieutenant Gordon in Montreal. Hajek’s baritone voice is dulcet and well-matched to the warmth of his onstage persona. In contrast, the imperious Craig Irvin sang the role of Lieutenant Horstmayer, rendering the most multifaceted character in the opera.
Puts is garnering attention as a vocal composer of note. In Silent Night, Puts created a dream-like (and at times nightmarish) score appropriate to the great amount of sung dialogue within the opera. Soundscapes colored the opera as well. These were not bells tolling or shepherds singing—as Puccini imagined in his operas—but rather chimes, bombs, and gun fire.
Puts also incorporated a few formal set pieces such as the spell-binding aria “Blessés: Grabert, Pierre…”, sung by the French Lieutenant Audebert (Matthew Worth), in which Audebert records the names the dead, wounded, and missing within his logbook. Accompanied by a gentle ostinato, Worth, who also performed the role at the Wexford festival under the direction of Atlanta Opera’s Tomer Zvulun, accomplished the most memorable moment of the evening with a sumptuous vocal line that throbbed with remorse and memory. The men’s chorus, soldiers divided by country of origin, was visible on a three-tiered concrete structure and eventually joined Worth singing an unaccompanied madrigal-like hymn in three languages. Conductor Nicole Paiement led the singers and orchestra with staggering proficiency.
Aided by lighting designer Rober Wierzel, stage director Zvulun used these panoramic images individually and simultaneously throughout the evening in order to delineate moments of boredom or levity between the soldiers. The set, designed by Erhard Rom, looked like a parking garage that had been snatched up from midtown Atlanta, a stark contrast to costume designer Vita Tzykun’s period uniforms that firmly grounded the action within the early twentieth century. —Stephanie Adrian