The week in classical: Silent Night; Messiah; Carmen review – anything but silent

Leeds Town Hall; Gresham Centre; Royal Opera House, London
A 100-strong male voice chorus gave the resounding premiere of Kevin Puts’s first world war opera. Plus, a thrilling first Messiah of the season

Warning bells jangled. Could an opera based on a screenplay about that historic few hours of peace on Christmas Eve 1914 escape sentimentality? In a season focused on the first world war, Opera North gave the world premiere of Silent Night by the American composer Kevin Puts (b1972) and librettist Mark Campbell. As a warm up, community singers lustily sang Keep the Home Fires Burning and O Tannenbaum, and read soldiers’ letters home. Nothing mawkish there. Eighty-two thousand Leeds men volunteered in 1914. Some 10,000 didn’t return.

The opera itself took place in the civic grandeur of Leeds Town Hall. A throng of 100 male voices – from Opera North and Opera North Youth choruses, students from the Royal Northern College of Music and a soldiers’ chorus made up of local singers – packed the stage, deftly weaving between an orchestra complete with harmonica and bagpipes. Nicholas Kok, conducting, marshalled his forces incisively.

This is Puts’s first opera, commissioned and premiered by Minnesota Opera in 2011, and staged at Wexford Festival in 2014. Fluent and cinematic, the score uses pastiche to clever effect, providing a sturdy structure to accommodate the many different musical voices, from waltzes to war songs to big, emotional choruses. Only in the orchestral interludes is there any real stirring of dissonance. It’s one of several new operas, many American – among them Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking – in which the message drives the music. It’s not cutting-edge opera, but it’s strong theatre. Value it for what it is.

Campbell’s skilled libretto brought clarity to a potentially muddling scenario. French, German and Scottish troops, each singing in their own language, each with their own stories, find common ground and negotiate their brief Christmas truce. If we accept its simplified fantasy, the message is robust, direct and potent.

Máire Flavin and Rupert Charlesworth in Silent Night.
Máire Flavin and Rupert Charlesworth in Silent Night. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Leading the large cast, the Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang showed touching nobility as the French lieutenant Audebert, homesick for his wife and child. As Sprink, in civilian life a German opera singer who rails against the impotence of war, Rupert Charlesworth tackled his high-lying phrases with ease and passion. Promising chorus members took supporting roles, among them Christopher Nairne as a young soldier who dies, and Alex Banfield as the troubled brother who survives. As Sprink’s lover, Anna Sørensen – the opera’s only woman – Máire Flavin made a rewarding shift from petulant diva to brave French captive.

Tim Albery’s semi-staging used sepia images of the western front projected on to the huge pipes of the hall’s Victorian organ, which provided a fittingly jagged backdrop. That grand instrument was inaugurated when Queen Victoria opened Leeds Town Hall in 1858. Everyone sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah, a work by then embedded in the British choral tradition, usually on an epic scale. Handel would have loved the pomp and splendour.

He would surely, too, have delighted in the bristling, youthful economy and grace of a small-scale performance last week by Voces8, together with Apollo5 and Voces8 scholars: two dozen singers in all, with excellent soloists drawn from the ensemble, all conducted with infectious energy by Barnaby Smith. They unite under the title of the VCM Foundation, a vocal music education charity that engages some 100,000 people around the world in live music and singing. This community quest is as much part of their mission as performing to the highest professional level.

Barnaby Smith conducts the Messiah at the Gresham Centre, St Anne and St Agnes church, London.
Barnaby Smith conducts the Messiah at the Gresham Centre, St Anne and St Agnes church, London. Photograph: Nicola Sersale

With the Academy of Ancient Music providing fiery orchestral colour, this Messiah rocked along with breathtaking fervour, but left space for contemplation too. The arrival of the angel to the surprised shepherds (“And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them”) had fearful radiance; the bass aria “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” was sung with charging, urgent anger. The chorus, impeccably drilled, exploited that exciting transition from the dark harmonies of “Since by man came death” to the explosive, redemptive brilliance of “For as in Adam”. This first Messiah of the season was a winner.

Barrie Kosky’s production of Carmen is back at the Royal Opera House. It’s the one with the steps. First time round, earlier this year, their monumentality proved distracting. This time, under the brisk baton of Keri-Lynn Wilson making her ROH debut, sharpened, tightened, the evening flew. Gaëlle Arquez is an ideal, sexy Carmen, Brian Jagde a Don José whose charms, for once, you can countenance. Imagine Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa steps, 42nd Street and Georges Guétary singing I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise all rolled into the capacious genius of Bizet’s music. It’s nearly sold out. Book for next year.

Barrie Kosky’s production of Carmen at the Royal Opera House.
Barrie Kosky’s new, improved production of Carmen at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Bill Cooper

Star ratings (out of 5)
Silent Night

  • Carmen is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London, until 22 December, then returns in June 2019


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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