Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way from the start: I really don’t like military-themed things, least of all a story about World War I, the most stupid and useless war ever. So a little bit of trepidation going to see the Opéra de Montréal’s production of Silent Night (music by Kevin Puts, libretto by Mark Campbell). Of course, this is supposed to be the anti-war story, when the soldiers from the opposing sides (here the Germans, French and British…well, Scots) declared their own truce for Christmas Eve. I probably ought to add that I’m not a big fan of religion, either.
But read on…I still appreciated my evening.
The first striking element was as we took our seats. Projections of the French, British and German flags from the time (okay, only one of those has actually changed since then), fluttering on the curtain up front (first photo above). I don’t know if my photo does it justice, but it was quite striking. It also set us up for another experience of the dynamic projected backdrop, the use of which is a real credit to the Opéra de Montréal. Apart from the war aspects — flashes and smoke — things as simple as the clouds drifting slowly past the moon really added to the texture of the production.
Something you will know about my opera experiences if you have read any of my previous reviews is that I do love a good set. This one was quite good: a round dais in the centre with a sloped top that rotated with great regularity, and split open to reveal the wainscoting of an elegant room for the Crown Prince’s birthday party (a door, a chandelier and a Christmas tree descended to complete the look); an outer ring that had spaced along it the bunkers of the British (Scottish) and German troops and the bombed-out church from which the French were fighting. The extras here got a real workout, as they were constantly pressed into service to rotate this outer ring, often in the opposite direction of the inner one. Constant motion, but we always knew where we were, and we were always focused on the action.
The other thing you will know about my opera experiences is that I know nothing about music, only what I like. And I tend to like light Italian songs with plenty of repetition of the catchy parts and often with many voices singing competing parts that crescendo together. Is that too much to ask? Well, they can’t all be like that, and I fought my impulses to really not like the things that seemed to have been spoken more than sung (especially in English or French, which just seem too common for me, living in Montréal). I seem to have surprised myself by liking the encore that Anna Sørensen (soprano Marianne Fiset) and Nikolaus Sprink (tenor Joseph Kaiser) sing for the Crown Prince. I normally don’t find German, except extreme forms of Swiss German, all that pleasant to listen to (remember by biases, above), but this encore was lovely and remained my favourite song all the way to the end. Of course, it also served to divert the attention of the Crown Prince from the cheekiness of Mr. Kaiser, who had snapped that he had been conscripted like everyone else, when the Crown Prince tried to congratulate him for volunteering to join the army.
So I’m not going to go on any more about the singing, except to say there were some lovely voices on stage and I won’t be insulting the composer or the librettist (who were there, if I am not mistaken in my observation of the curtain calls) by applying any of my uninformed opinions to the quality of their work. Hey — I didn’t walk out, despite all my pre-existing resistance to the storyline, and that is heartier praise than it seems.
At the very least, we all come away having seen a wondrous set, having listened to some delightful singing and having witnessed a thorough denunciation of the utter ridiculousness of war, in particular the stupidest war ever. The punishment of the soldiers who were going to have trouble killing each other after learning that their enemies were just like they were is the exclamation point at the end of that denunciation.
Maybe if we had more peace, we would have more of that light Italian opera fare that I like so much!
Oh, one last note about the sponsors: the US Consulate and Veterans Affairs Canada. I do like seeing support for the arts from all quarters, but I would prefer for the federal government to properly fund the arts and not dip into its savings from closing Veterans Affairs offices and being cheap with support for returning, traumatized soldiers to pay only for something war-related. But that’s my own little rant and slant.