The efficient Act I exposition, showing the lives the men left behind by going to war and their bleak trench existence, could have been pulled off by any fine composer. The music acts like an aggressively excitable film score, in the best sense. Aside from some set pieces, the vocal writing behaved like heightened dialogue.
Act II is cut from similar cloth but, with a more spare, expansive manner, dispenses with scene painting and uses atonality to convey the weary directionlessness of soldiers realizing the war has become a voracious, pointless black hole. Here, where the film loses its pace, the opera kicks into high gear as Puts harnesses the insinuative possibilities of music.
Librettist Campbell bypassed the film's potentially shrill elements and used the gallery of characters as a continuum of wartime behavior - delusions of glory, blind loyalty, shell shock in varying degrees, and then, when a freer-thinking opera diva arrives at the front to sing, a fierce assertion of personal liberty in the face of military regimentation. Only a few moments don't ring entirely true: A German soldier's defection, for example, seems far too easy.
The revolving stage set has three trenches, while various scrims accommodate computer-animated smoke and snow, all juggled with hard-hitting realism by stage director Eric Simonson. So embedded are the singers in layers of story, production, and orchestration (handled authoritatively by conductor Michael Christie) that they seemed to live their characters rather than act them.
As the German singer-turned-soldier, William Burden's still-boyish tenor was the heartbeat of the performance, while, on the Scottish side, Troy Cook, as the chaplain, sang Puts' setting of the Prayer of St. Francis so effectively that it was the emotional center of Act II. As the diva, Kelly Kaduce could be vocally unruly but came off as the opera's steeliest character - not the first war story in which only the women have a clear perspective.
Music by Kevin Puts, libretto by Mark Campbell. Conductor: Michael Christie. Designed by Francis O'Connor. Stage director: Eric Simonson.
William Burden. . . Sprink
Kelly Kaduce . . . Anna Sorensen
Craig Irvin. . . Lt. Horstmayer
Troy Cook. . . Father Palmer
Gabriel Preisser. . . Lt. Gordon
Liam Bonner. . . Lt. Audebert
Andrew Wilkowske. . . Ponchel
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $10-$235. Information: 215-893-1018 or www.operaphila.org.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.