UK Premiere, Silent Night, Opera North, Leeds Town Hall
Elaine Annable, Music Correspondent
The UK premiere of the WW1 opera 'Silent Night' by Opera North was an absolute triumph. A stunning production on every level, everything came together perfectly: direction, music, costumes and lighting, to create a very special evening.
Inspired by real events, 'Silent Night' takes as its starting point the 1914 truce when peace spontaneously broke out between French, German and Scottish troops in the trenches.
First commissioned and produced by Minnesota Opera in 2011, this operatic adaptation of 'Joyeux Noel', the 2005 Christian Carion film, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012, and has subsequently been performed by several companies in the US and elsewhere.
With the blessing of the composer, Kevin Puts, Opera North's regular ensemble of Chorus (in this case, male only), Orchestra and guest soloists, were joined by students of the Royal Northern College of Music, the Opera North Youth Chorus and a locally-recruited Community Chorus for this unique production.
Brilliantly directed by Tim Albery, 'Silent Night' is a masterclass in concert staging. The seamless and efficient way in which the characters move and work within the limitations of the concert stage, is highly imaginative and very effective. Added to which, he also manages the seemingly impossible feat of making the orchestra part of the action - using the conductor at the start was a clever touch - whilst at other times, they miraculously merge into the background, to such an extent, that you are only aware of the glorious music.
The lighting and video design is outstanding, and contributed much to the atmosphere and effectiveness of the production. The projection of archive footage onto the organ pipes above the choir, gave a three dimensional effect which was extremely disorientating, and later, the way it captured the starkness of the landscape - devastated trees silhouetted against the skyline, crosses marking graves, and snow falling at crucial points in the story, was simply breathtaking.
The costumes are fabulous, with great attention to detail - even down to the dried mud on the boots and bottom half of Lietenant Audebert's uniform.
Opera North's orchestra did full justice to a wonderful score, which was beautifully orchestrated. At certain points throughout the score the horn is used as a symbol of hope for humanity, and a shout out must go to principal horn Robert Ashworth, whose sublime tone made such an impression at those moments
Mark Campbell's libretto is heart-warming and poignant, and also surprisingly humorous, with moments of dark humour which helps to mitigate the despair in the story.
The performances - as we have come to expect from Opera North - are all top notch and perfectly pitched: Maire Flavin and Rupert Charlesworth are both totally believable as an operatic couple; she convincingly portraying the frustration she feels towards her fiancée for his determination to go back and join his comrades at the front; he, railing against war with its absurd notions of patriotism.
Alex Banfield is strong as a Scots soldier grieving the death of his brother, Geoffrey Dolton is a wonderfully comedic yet tragic French soldier Ponchel, the batman to Quirijn de Lang's French lieutenant Audebert, who sings movingly about the loss of his wife's photo.
Once again there are no weak links in this production - the male chorus augmented by the locally-recruited Community Chorus, gave sterling support to the principals.
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Led by Sophie Gilpin, the group has been exploring conflict through poetry, first-hand accounts and original letters and songs from WW1.
These workshops culminated in a special short performance before each showing of the opera. Moving around the corridors of the Town Hall, men from this project performed popular songs from that time and gave readings from original letters. It was a wonderful way of setting the mood and atmosphere for the arriving audience, and was yet another element which added to the success of the evening.
Opera North's Silent Night is a tour de force performance and a deeply moving experience. It is one that will stay in the memory for a long time.
On a final note, I would have preferred the performance to have ended with a single bow from cast, orchestra and creatives, rather than the extended series of bows from everyone in the cast - it just felt a bit inappropriate in the circumstances.
UK Premiere, Silent Night, Opera North, Leeds Town Hall, 1st December 2018, 21:51 PM