Silent Night, Opera North, Leeds Town Hall, Friday 30th November 2018

FAMOUS German singers Anna Sorensen and Nikolaus Sprink are performing at a Berlin opera house in the late summer of 1914. Suddenly, the conductor signals the orchestra to stop playing. The maestro lays down his baton and solemnly announces that Germany is at War. This is the gripping Prologue to Kevin Puts’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning opera, with libretto by Mark Campbell. The opera is receiving its UK premiere in Leeds and is based on the story of the spontaneous 1914 Christmas Eve truce.

Opera North’s unique production realises Silent Night’s cinematic qualities. The wide stage and tiered orchestra risers in Leeds Town Hall bring the action closer than the traditional proscenium arch theatre format. The Hall’s spatial qualities are maximised by placing the enormous array of percussion above the strings, woodwind and brass on specially built rostra to the left and right of the organ. A 90-strong male chorus and 13 principals are broadly divided into three authentically costumed platoons of Scottish, French and German soldiers. Production director Tim Albery’s choreographed movements of the three groups creates compelling stage pictures and touching human encounters, as peace and goodwill breaks out for a few precious hours.

Soft lighting and beautiful video footage of starry skies and ghostly silhouettes of marching soldiers projected onto the gilded organ pipes foster the idealistic atmosphere of this surreal Christmas Eve. Images of gently falling snow accompanying the distribution of small silver tinsel-decorated Christmas trees for the soldiers will linger in the memory.

Musically and dramatically, Silent Night packs a powerful emotional punch in the hands of Opera North’s accomplished cast led by Maire Flavin and Rupert Charlesworth as Anna Sorensen and Niklaus Sprink. The Men’s Chorus of Opera North, Students of the Royal Northern College of Music, Opera North Youth Chorus, plus a specially auditioned Community Chorus sing with great sensitivity and - when required - thrilling visceral power.

Kevin Puts’ panoramic score could be described as contemporary rather than modern. His orchestral panoply includes harp, piano and celeste, harmonica, and the plangent tone of bagpipes, here played by a piper in full, kilted regalia. Conductor Nicholas Kok at the helm of the Orchestra of Opera North carefully balances the vocal and instrumental textures in this spacious acoustic.

Performances at Leeds Town Hall on Thursday and Friday at 7pm.

Geoffrey Mogridge