As 2018 is the centennial of the end of World War I, there could not be a more fitting production appearing on the stage of the Glimmerglass Festival than the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “Silent Night.”
Although the first few minutes of the show did feature a violent fighting scene, most of the performance dealt with more emotional struggles of love and loss, and the strange encounter of familiar humanity in the enemy.
The set itself was heart-wrenching from the moment patrons walked into the theater, as they were immediately able to notice fallen soldiers’ names scrolling over the stage screen. Behind this partially translucent veil there was a memorial that read, “In memory of the people who gave their lives for King and Country in the war of 1914-1918. In death, all men are equal. Their names live for evermore.” This façade then rose later in the show, revealing three levels of barracks, with the Germans on the ground, the French in the middle, and the Scottish in the top bunker. While this stratification may have highlighted the divisions between these groups of men, they were nevertheless all under the same roof.
The opera follows three intertwining stories, that of the two Scottish brothers Jonathan and William Dale, that of opera singers Nikolaus Sprink (conscripted by Germany) and his lover, Anna Sørensen, and that of Lieutenant Audebert of the French army.
Over the course of the show, each character is stripped of any wartime bravado he may have had, leaving only the yearning to be with and protect his love ones that lies at the heart of each soldier in the production. Jonathan is devastated by his brother’s death, and he vows to get revenge, all the while writing home to his mother as if William were still alive. Nikolaus wants nothing to do with what he feels is a pointless war, and Anna wants to help him find a way out for them to be together. Lieutenant Audebert has not heard from his wife in over six months, and he is incredibly anxious, as she was due to give birth to their child. On each side, the men that make up each army grapple with problems that are ubiquitous around the globe, despite whatever lines in the sand that may be drawn, especially during times of war. However, as these three regiments declare a truce on Christmas Eve, they quickly realize that their enemy is no real stranger.
The singing was, unsurprisingly, absolutely spectacular. The audience heard beautiful duets from Arnold Livingston Geis and Mary Evelyn Hangley (Nikolaus and Anna) at many points over the course of the show, and their songs of longing for each other and a more favorable season for love were powerful. Michael Hewitt, playing Lieutenant Horstmayer, used his remarkable baritone voice to create the intimidating character of a soldier hardened by battle who eventually softens as he sees the commonalities between himself and the other lieutenants. Michael Miller, in the role of Lieutenant Audebert, performed some of the most touching solos as he sang wistfully for his wife and child that he did not yet know.
Although hearing each voice alone was a fantastic experience, the most awe-inspiring moments occurred when all the men’s voices from each regiment wove together into haunting harmonies. The three distinct languages melded together into one glorious sound, and each group, in its own tongue, were moved by the same emotions, whether it be weariness and a yearning for sleep or joy and disbelief that a ceasefire in such a dreadful war took place. These shared moments in song could make one weep out of happiness in seeing compassion in all people or out of sadness in knowing that this fraternity would soon end, and these temporary comrades would shortly return to shooting each other.
By the end of the show, each platoon has been reprimanded for the truce by their commanders, and the countryside is being abandoned by all three sides. In a way it is a relief, as it seems impossible that the men who had just shared Christmas together could resume killing each other. However, these regiments will only be moved to other front lines, where they will fight the same “enemies” — people who would prove not so foreign if given the chance. While this show honors those who died serving in World War I, it is also a plea for those of us living now: get to know “the other.” Chances are, he or she isn’t that different from you. Are the few perceived differences worth killing over? Anna Sørensen, when performing for the soldiers on Christmas Eve sings, “Dona nobis pacem,” or “God give us peace.”
Yet again, the Glimmerglass Festival presented a show that was both exquisite artistically and profound in its call to action; while we may not achieve world peace simply by practicing empathy in our daily lives, it is, albeit a small step, still an important, necessary step in the right direction that we can, and must, take.