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Shout it from the rooftops: 'Silent Night' was one of Austin Opera's best shows ever

Michael Barnes
'Silent Night' was among the best shows that Austin Opera has ever produced. [Contributed]

Everything about “Silent Night,” which closed Sunday at the Long Center, revealed what is absolutely right about the reinvented Austin Opera.

As soon as the middle curtain opened on the three-tier platforms that held Scottish, French and German troops for this deeply affecting World War I drama, the viewer knew that the full power of opera as theater, not just as music, was in play.

Here’s how the impressions rolled out for me in this retelling of the Christmas 1914 truce on the Western Front.

• Bring out the bodies. Even before the main characters crystallized, the performers interacted naturally, sculpturally, kinetically under production stage director Tomer Zvulun and stage director Conor Hanratty. They continued to do so from the initial, intense, wide-angle battle scene to the most tender and intimate interactions.

• Light is power. The lighting, credited in the printed program to two designers, took off where set and projection designer Erhard Rom’s imperative scenery left off. Back-lighting, side-lighting, spackled-lighting, finely focused personal lighting — all were used for maximum power of revelation.

• Space as meaning. The three stacked tiers, which stood for bunkers as well as for the field below, guided us through the complicated relationships among the three sets of soldiers. The moments when the story left the field were deftly guided by the elegant projections.

• Culture as character. A good amount of the humor in Mark Campbell’s words grew out of cultural types: The French with their fine creature comforts, romance and linguistic precision; the Germans with their music, discipline and social fissures; the Scottish with their religion, passions and, of course, bagpipes, suspected at first to be weapons.

• Music and language meld. While Campbell nimbly employed five languages for the libretto, former Austinite Kevin Puts used a seemingly infinite variety of musical styles, some of them ravishing, to shape each scene. No wonder Mr. Pulitzer came calling.

• Ensembles shows deserve focus, too. The large cast and chorus could have disintegrated into anarchy without distinctive performances in lead roles. While I could make a long list of those who created memorable characters, I’ll settle on Joseph Dennis and Hailey Clark as the German couple — opera singers before the war — whose actions spur the truce as well as the subsequent breakthroughs of humanity in the narrative.

• Local musicianship has not faded. Making his Austin Opera debut, artistic advisor and conductor Timothy Meyers proved that the city’s instrumentalists and singers have not lost a molecule of their art or craft despite recent personnel turmoil in the company.

• Behold the return of cultural tourism. This is just a guess, but because so many in the audience at the Sunday matinee did not look or dress like typical Austinites, I’m thinking Austin Opera is once again drawing a regional or even wider audience for singular attractions such as “Silent Night.”

One last brava to General Director and CEO Annie Burridge for putting all this together.

I had a morbid thought during the long, deserved curtain call: If this was for some awful reason the last show that Austin Opera ever staged, it would have secured its legacy forever.