Kai Stewart's Confounded Contraption

Silent Night at the MNOpera

Every so often, the Minnesota Opera Company invites bloggers and cartoonists to their dress rehearsal, in part so that we can soak up culture and history that we would not otherwise absorb, and in part so that, to paraphrase Lee Blauersouth two marginalized artforms can help eachother out.

The second opera of this season is Silent Night, an adaptation of Joyeüx Noel. It was commissioned by MNOpera, so we were not only the first people to see this production, we were the first people to see any production, ever. That's neat to think about.

For a summary of the story's history and context, I recommend you visit Thomas Boguszewski's excellent article.

My favorite part about the opera was the set. MNOpera consistently does a lot with a little, but this time they had, well, a little more. The set was built in three rings, the inner two of which could rotate independently of eachother. Super spare and elegant, and allowed the French, German and British trenches to rotate into view.

The French troops were quartered in this bombed-out Cathedral. I fell completely in love with it and drew it one thousand times. Barely a shell, it had a creaky fragility that was offset by its clean geometry. It was strong enough to support actors on its upper stories, in the same way that a nautilus shell is strong. Strong enough to support what, i don't know, tiny mollusk actors in a submarine drama perhaps.

Each army was treated with sympathy and humanity, although we're clearly against the German political position. The Kaiser was portrayed as fat, dumb, and out of touch with the situation on the ground, sort of like a phlegmy Heliogabalus. The German lieutenant was fierce and heavy, but ultimately reasonable and considerate.

This guy. He kind of looked like a bear, with his big coat and massive shoulders. He's Jewish, which would be funny if anything about that situation was funny.

While the set was the most appealing thing, the most interesting thing was the language. Each of the armies spoke and sang in their native tongues. I had never attended an opera I could understand before. Always before I've let the singing wash over me, marveling at the strangness and melody and wondering why they are singing 1,000,000 words while the supertitle is a two-word phrase. Now I could tell, at least for the English and some of the French side, when the supertitles failed to capture some funny turn of phrase, and how incredibly alien operatic phrasing is to the cadences of speech. It sounded like dialog from Rex Morgan, M.D., with its emphasis on inconsequential words, and unaccented syllables soaring into the rafters. My favorite musical moment was Anna Sørensen's acapella rendition of "Dona Nobis Pacem" on the battlefield, which had the crispness and clarity of winter air and functioned as a symbol of the beauty and fragility of the Christmas truce.

The interplay between strength and weakness comes up again and again in this opera. The troops are secure in their trenches, but vulnerable to longing for home; they abandon the physical strength of weapons and war for the emotional strength of sharing and companionship. The British soldier Jonathan, driven to distraction by his brother's death, is the only soldier willing to resume the conflict after the truce, and demonstrates the mortal strength of his decision. But he is broken by his loss, suffering hallucinations and unable to function outside of the context of war. Singers Sprink and Sørensen surrender themselves as prisoners of war in a courageous resistance to the German cause. All three lieutenants are criticized by their superiors for showing weakness and sympathy for the enemy, but the story of their truce outlasted the story of their battle by almost one hundred years. Strength and surrender, submission and success.

And how often do bagpipers get to be heroes?
2011-11-22 05:42:00 UTC
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