Piedmont Opera opened its 40th anniversary season Friday night with a gorgeous production of “Silent Night” by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell.
The opera won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012. The Piedmont Opera production marks its premiere in North Carolina.
Evocative production design by Norman Coates and exciting fighting sequences by Dale Girard and Alex Bodine support exquisite performances by the singers, directed by Cynthia Stokes, and sublime playing by the Winston-Salem Symphony, conducted by James Allbritten.
Based on the 2005 French film “Joyeux Noël,” the opera explores the unsustainability of war when enemies come to know each other as people.
It is the story of a spontaneous cease-fire early in World War I and the unintended consequences that subsequently unfold.
In the opening scenes, we are introduced to some of the human hearts that will be tried by the chaos of war.
Anna Sorensen and Nikolaus Sprink, German opera singers, are separated.
The Scot Jonathan Dale, a painter, goes to war to watch out for his elder brother, William Dale, who yearns for the glory of battle.
The French Lt. Gabriel Audebert is deeply conflicted about leaving his pregnant wife to do his patriotic duty.
Jodi Burns, as Anna, opens the show with a beautiful song. Throughout the evening Burns dazzled with her lustrous soprano and bright charisma. The production is elevated whenever she appears on stage.
Gabriel Preisser, a lyric baritone who created the role of the Scottish leader, Lt. Gordon, in the original production, sings Audebert for the first time here.
Preisser’s performance is nuanced and sympathetic; his character caught between military duty and domestic bliss. This is Preisser’s Piedmont Opera debut.
Ponchel is one of the opera’s charmers. Sung sweetly by Kyle Guglielmo, Ponchel is Audebert’s attache. He makes the lieutenant’s coffee and longs for his own mother and home.
It’s these kind of heartfelt stories juxtaposed against the horrors of war that make “Silent Night” so important and affecting — plus Puts’ gorgeous and expressive score.
There are lovely choral pieces, such as “Sleep” in Act I. Contemporary dissonance works in the battle scenes, and much of the score is plangent and lyrical.
The music underscores yearning and despair and, ultimately, hope.
Near the end, Anna/Jodi exhorts the troops and the audience to do something to change the trajectory of war and destruction. She and Nikolaus choose a radical and inventive course of action.
Others, like Audebert, have their fates chosen for them.
The opera is mostly sung in English, French and German, but there is also some Italian and Latin. In any language, the emotions and meaning are clear, the ability of art to transfix a moment in time, powerful.