It is fitting that the final production of the Fort Worth Opera Festival opens after Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Kevin Puts’s Silent Night opens at a Berlin Opera house where the announcement of WWI disrupts the careers of two opera performers who seem to be in Mozartian regalia and sing in an almost Mozartian style towards one another at the thought of having to be apart. It was also fitting to be able to compare a titan of the canon like Così fan tutte so directly to Silent Night, because it enabled audiences to see the timelessness and almost instant-classic-like qualities of Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera. Of the four productions in this year’s festival, it seems likely that the final two operas are the ones that may still be performed a hundred years from now.
Kevin Puts’s score was both highly cinematic, and extremely versatile. Puts has the orchestra switching stylistic gears between each of the represented countries with ease, combining sweeping emotive lines with light folk music from each culture. The greatly enjoyable score ranged from rousing choruses and highly melodic arias, to points where the soloists simply hold a line and let the orchestra do the brunt of the work, to folk music, bagpipes and a haunting harmonica ending. The vocal demands are at times more Verdian than typical modern arias, and are one of the many reasons why Silent Night could be programmed between any opera in the canon and stand up on its own. For those that have crowned Jake Heggie the opera composer and voice of our time, don’t overlook Kevin Puts and, especially, don’t overlook Silent Night.
This was certainly a male-dominated opera and the baritones ruled the day as baritone Craig Irvin commanded both the men and his stage as German Lieutenant Horstmayer. Morgan Smith nearly brought down the house as French Lieutenant Audebert in his Act I aria before the gorgeous “Sleep” chorus. Kevin Newell as the Scottish Jonathan Dale was a very impressive tenor as his clear voice rang out in anguish above the choruses throughout the work while others were celebrating and he continued in mourning over the loss of his brother. Fort Worth Opera Studio Artist Alum Steven Eddy was an admirably comedic and sympathetic Ponchel —a sometimes difficult combination to pull off.
The fantastic staging of this work, with the rotating centerpiece showing both the metaphorical and physical “insides” of each of the camps, perfectly presents the complexities of the situation in this story of a spontaneous WWI Christmas Eve cease-fire.
Silent Night may be the perfect ending for this year’s staged Fort Worth Opera Festival performances. We’ve gone through a typical operatic love story in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, a challenging chamber opera premiere in With Blood, With Ink, an operatic opera-buffa mainstay in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and now a new work, that might be the best of the four, in Kevin Puts’s Silent Night.