That “the war to end all wars” failed to live up to its name is apparent in the one by which it is better known, World War I. It didn’t even end war between the same countries. As Tom Lehrer put it:
Once all the Germans were warlike and mean
But that couldn’t happen again
We taught them a lesson in 1918
And they’ve hardly bothered us since then
16 million died in a war that started over an incestuous web of alliances between harelipped archdukes and hemophiliac tsars, whose chief military strategy was to send conscripted soldiers charging headlong into machine gun fire, and led directly to another, even deadlier one. It’s good, then, that we get something out of that idiotic conflict a century later, even if that something is an opera.
That this opera, Silent Night, is terribly cheesy is apparent from both Kevin Puts’ music, which borrows unabashedly from Mozart, and Mark Campbell’s libretto, which tells the story of soldiers on opposite sides who call a ceasefire to celebrate Christmas together. It’s exactly the type of feel good, middlebrow new work that awards committees love—it won a Pulitzer in 2012—for promising to take opera to mainstream audiences. Add to that the Christmas theme and it has all the makings of a lucrative holiday standard. Ballet companies make half their yearly revenue in December with The Nutcracker, theater companies do the same with A Christmas Carol, as do choruses with Messiah. If opera companies ever hope to tap that family holiday money spigot, they’re not going to do it with The Rape of Lucretia.
Promise of future performance is critical to the success of new operas, particularly ambitious ones like Silent Night, which involves a large cast, expansive sets, period costumes, and a libretto in three languages. Even in one language, singers balk at having to memorize entirely new works without any guarantee of doing it again, which is why the cast for this production comes from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program, the Washington National Opera’s apprenticeship for early career singers. Pulitzer or no, it may take another run or two before bigger name stars take the production from the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater to the Opera House.
That said, it probably will. This particular staging is timed to commemorate the centennial of the 1918 Armistice. But it has all the makings of a lasting new work: a non-obscure historical subject, an easy-to-digest classical instrumentation, and the aforementioned cheesiness, the we’re-all-brothers-after-all message that resonates so well in a town that at least ostensibly venerates military service and bemoans partisan polarization (among our elected officials, more in concept than in practice).
The story is a true one, about French, Scottish, and German soldiers on the Belgian front who called a truce on Christmas Eve 1914 to bury the dead and get to know each other. The humanity of this simple gesture is all the more resonant given the brutality of a war no one wanted, in which soldiers were as likely to die from disease and poor medical treatment as from gunfire or poison gas. The Domingo-Cafritz cast portrays the misery well, and the rapid disillusionment of those who volunteer out of a sense of adventure or patriotic duty. The large cast makes for often unwieldy ensembles with overlapping tenors and baritones. It doesn’t help that, due to the setting, it’s a nearly all male cast, and the inclusion of the one female role, an opera singer played by effusive soprano Raquel González, who visits her boyfriend on the front lines, requires a heroic suspension of disbelief. Puts nevertheless has written in some nice duets between brothers, ministers, officers, and, yes, opera singers. Conductor Nicole Paiement leads the WNO Orchestra with thoughtful phrasing, although some of the best moments are when the orchestra falls silent and lets the singers express the war’s horrors a capella.
There is little in the way of wartime gallantry in Silent Night, and the few gung ho patriots in the mix are out of touch brass treated with derision. One memorable scene comes when the conscripted German opera tenor (played by real life tenor Alexander McKissick, who is smooth if slightly underpowered) is recalled from the front lines to perform at a holiday party for the military high command at their cozy mountain chalet, and comes away full of disgust for the men who sent them to the trenches. A more useful parable for the Kennedy Center’s audience, particularly those foreign policymakers pushing for new military adventures in Iran or elsewhere, might not be from the war’s western front but from the east. Silent Night’s Scottish, French and German soldiers were smart enough to lay down their weapons, but don’t quite reach the conclusion that their Russian counterparts did, in picking them up again and turning them on the nobles who sent them off to die in the first place.
To November 25 at 2700 F St. NW. $35–$199. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.