Haunting and Heartwarming: Opera North’s Silent Night at Leeds Town Hall

The Christmas truce of 1914 has to be one of the most remarkable events in the history of mankind; we’re talking about a story in which thousands of valorous men left their trenches to unite with those who’d aimed to kill them in the sanguinary months prior. Whilst you may say Opera North’s staging of the occasion is a little late with the recent closure of the First World War centenary, the festive season, albeit in very different circumstances, is once again about to bring people together just as it did all those years ago.

For what may initially seem an entirely new opera, the world premiere of Silent Night was, in fact, all the way back in 2011. The production begins with the news that war has broken out before going onto hone in on three patrols who unify after finding themselves caught within the confines of a Belgian battlefield: one from France, one from Germany and one from Scotland. It’s an adaptation of the motion picture triumph Joyeux Noël, which was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2006.

With the vastly experienced Tim Albery at the helm as Director, the piece’s paramount positive is how it aurally lends itself to Leeds Town Hall, where the production will be performed for the whole of its four-show run. Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning score fuses magnificently with the venue’s incredible acoustics and, in doing so, electrifies the auditorium. Another major plus point, in my opinion, is Hannah Clark’s ornate costumes. When, for example, the troops first enter, their elaborate uniforms largely contribute to the evocative atmosphere.

Although video projections, at first, might have been a propitious idea, the use of an already ostentatious back wall means the clips are sometimes difficult to discern. There’s also an issue of ambiguity in terms of what’s shown on the translation screens. I imagine working with several languages, as this show must, is awkward, but the screens fail to display any clear differentiation between the various translations, which means, during songs in which characters have overlapping lines, linking text to voices can prove problematic.

The production’s acting, conversely, is more challenging to fault with the vast majority of performances polished to the highest of standards. Máire Flavin, who as Anna Sørensen eventually finds herself along the Western Front with her conscripted partner, gives an utterly stupendous performance. Radiating an aura of dominance each time she enters, Flavin expertly presents every emotion you’d associate with a soldier’s other half. The only performance I can slightly diminish is that of Alex Banfield as Scottish serviceman Jonathan Dale, whose solos I, at times, felt were slightly overdone.

For the opera enthusiasts amongst you, I’m sure this show won’t disappoint, nor for those who effervesce in a bit of war history. Putting its problems aside, this is a production which presents a strong score and soul-stirring story alongside some sublime performances. It’s not a silent night in the slightest.

Silent Night runs at Leeds Town until 7 December.

Luke Prowse Baldwin

Image courtesy of Opera North