Detailed Plot Outline
Except for some brief scenes which comprise the prologue and one scene at a French chalet commandeered by the Germans to serve as a military headquarters, the entire action takes place December 23 through 26, 1914 on a battlefield in France. A rotating stage allows for seamless transitions among the trenches of the three military units, with the center of the stage serving as “no man’s land” between the trenches of the opposing armies.
As in the film, characters in the opera speak/sing in the language they would have used in real life. The composer, who has been described as a “polystylist,” faced the challenge of composing in five languages, each with a different stress system.
Prologue and Act I:
The opening scene of the prologue takes place at the Berlin Opera House, where Anna and Nikolaus are appearing in an Italian opera designated as being in the style of Mozart or Gluck. (The music is not borrowed from other composers; it is all original for this opera). In a foreshadowing of the events to follow, the opera is about a woman waiting for her husband’s return from the war. The choice of this topic for the opera within an opera was that of the librettist, because, in his opinion, “Sometimes, opera ennobles war. I wanted to skewer that notion in the opera.” The couple’s on-stage reunion is interrupted by the entrance of a military officer who announces that Germany has been attacked and that war has been declared. To achieve maximum contrast between the world of the opera and the real world, the officer’s words are spoken, not sung. In the background a male chorus sings a battle cry.
The scene shifts to a church in Scotland. Jonathan and Father Palmer are discussing the statues decorating the church, as William bursts in excitedly, announcing that war has been declared and repeatedly singing of military glory. He intimidates Jonathan into enlisting. As in the previous scene, a chorus of soldiers (British this time) sing of the glory of war.
Another scene shift takes us to a garden in France, where Madeline is expressing her anger at Audebert’s leaving her for the war shortly before she is due to give birth to their first child. He assures her that the war will be a short one and that he will return soon. A chorus of French soldiers is heard in the background. (In fact, at the outset of the war, few people envisioned a prolonged conflict).
The various soldiers now appear together on stage, singing in a cacophony of sound about the impending battles. Father Palmer has enlisted as a chaplain. A bloody battle ensues, accompanied by discordant music from the orchestra, and most of the onstage soldiers fall dead. Nikolaus, who is in many ways the moral center of the opera, expresses his disgust with the carnage. As the scene ends, William falls wounded, and Jonathan runs to his side, but he is forced to run for safety, leaving his brother to die alone.
In the Scottish bunker, Lieutenant Gordon assesses the damage. Jonathan tells Father Palmer that he feels guilty about abandoning his brother, and he swears to avenge his death. In the French bunker, the general reprimands Lt. Audebert for retreating in battle. The general tells Audebert that he will be transferred to artillery after Christmas. He leaves. Ponchel enters. Audebert tells him that he is lamenting the loss of his wallet, since it contained a photograph of his wife. Ponchel, who is a somewhat comic character, tells Audebert that his life was saved when a bullet struck the alarm clock he always carries in his pocket; the reason he carries the clock is to remind himself every morning of the time he would visit his mother for breakfast. He leaves, and in one of the opera’s few extended arias, Audebert sings a soliloquy addressed to his wife as he writes the names of the dead and wounded in a journal. (The idea for this juxtaposition was suggested by the director – one small indication of how contemporary opera is truly a team effort).
In contrast to the dissonant music heard in the previous ensemble, the mood turns elegiac as the soldiers in the various trenches sing together in their various languages, welcoming the temporary peace that sleep brings. Nikolaus, however, laments that having witnessed the horrors of war he can never go back to life as he knew it.
A brief fugue (reminiscent of Bach) in the orchestra accompanies the delivery of Christmas trees to the German bunker. Lt. Horstmayer says that he would have preferred a delivery of weapons or additional troops. He informs Nikolaus that he has been summoned to sing at a Christmas party hosted by the Kronprinz (the Kaiser’s son) at a chalet behind the lines, where Anna (with whom Nikolaus is romantically linked) will also be singing. Horstmayer is not upset to see him leave, as he does not believe that artists make good soldiers anyway.
At the French bunker, the soldiers celebrate the gift of alcoholic beverages from back home. Ponchel, a barber in civilian life, gives Audebert a haircut while reminiscing about his home, which is nearby but behind enemy lines. In the Scottish bunker, Jonathan writes a letter to his mother, but fails to mention William’s death.
The scene shifts to the French chalet, where Anna and Nikolaus are singing the final phrases of an Italian duet. The Kronprinz thanks Nikolaus for volunteering for the army, but the latter reminds him that he was drafted. Asked for an encore, the two singers begin a song of Spring. Nikolaus finds it hard to continue, but he regains his composure and the two sing a sweet German song, perhaps reminiscent of Schubert. As they conclude, the orchestra strikes up a festive melody, but then suddenly shifts to more discordant music as the focus changes to Nikolaus and Anna’s private conversation. In contrast to the classical style of their formal duet, here their conversation may remind one more of the music of Richard Strauss, giving it a distinct Germanic flavor. They speak fondly of their first meeting, but when Anna hints that the two could spend the night together, Nikolaus replies that he must return to the front, and Anna surprises him when she announces that she has obtained permission to go with him. The party music returns briefly in the orchestra.
Back on the front, a Scottish soldier has acquired a bagpipe, and Palmer, followed by Gordon, sings a Scottish folksong accompanied by that instrument. The bunkers are so close in proximity that their singing is heard by the members of the other armies. Nikolaus and Anna arrive at the German bunker, and Nikolaus sings a German Christmas carol. (In the film, as in real life, the carol was “Silent Night,” but Puts substitutes an original carol of his own). Hearing him, the bagpipe player picks up the accompaniment. Over Horstmayer’s repeated objection, Nikolaus enters no man’s land carrying a Christmas tree and plants it between the opposing trenches. “Good evening to the English,” he shouts, and the Scottish soldiers reply that they are not English but Scottish. After some friendly banter, the three lieutenants enter no man’s land and agree to a one-night truce. Spontaneously, the soldiers pour out of the trenches and strike up conversations with the opposing side. A crescendo in the orchestra echoes the soldiers’ ad hoc friendship.
Father Palmer conducts a service in Latin (the fifth language to come into play). When one of the soldiers comments that this may be Lt. Horstmayer’s most memorable Christmas, he replies that it is the only Christmas he has ever observed – he is Jewish. Only Jonathan is not in a conciliatory mood. Brooding over his brother’s body, he swears he will kill every last German. Father Palmer invites Anna to sing “Dona nobis pacem,” and he concludes the service with the words (in Latin) “Go in peace,” but as the soldiers sit silently, the sound of munitions can be heard in the distance.
It is Christmas morning. Though the cease-fire has officially ended, hostilities have not yet resumed. Jonathan enters no-man’s land to bury his brother. Some German soldiers fear he is planting land mines, but Gordon waves a white flag and the Germans hold fire. The lieutenants meet and agree to extend the cease-fire until three that afternoon to allow for the burial of the dead. Horstmayer returns Audebert’s wallet.
An extended solemn instrumental passage, ending appropriately with a dirge on the bagpipe, accompanies the mass burial. Anna sings a lament about the women back home who will be receiving news of their loved-ones’ death, and she tells Nikolaus that someday she will hear of his death the same way. She repeats several times, “Unless we do something about it.”
The opera then cuts away to the various military headquarters, where the three leaders sing simultaneously of their shock at what they have just learned transpired at the front. All three resolve to take punitive action.
Back at the front, the three lieutenants, realizing that the truce is coming to an end, bid friendly farewells. Audebert compliments Horstmayer’s French, and the latter reveals that he has a French wife.
Returning to the German bunker, Horstmayer is confronted by Nikolaus, who asks how he can go on killing now that he has befriended the enemy. Horstmayer says he is serving the Fatherland. Nikolaus retorts that the Germans don’t even consider Horstmayer to be a real German, an unstated reference to his Jewishness. (Though Horstmayer’s Jewish identity is also referred to in the film, this comment was added by the librettist). He goes on to denounce the industrialists who are responsible for the war. Horstmayer calls him a traitor and places him under arrest. Anna comes forward and announces they will be prisoners, but not to the Germans. She leads Nikolaus across no-man’s land to the French side. Horstmayer threatens to shoot, but does not have the heart to kill them and fires a warning shot instead. Anna and Nikolaus approach Audebert and demand to be taken as prisoners of war, and Audebert complies.
In the Scottish bunker the major has arrived and loudly criticizes the fraternization. He tells the men that they are being transferred to a different front, and that Father Palmer has been recalled to Scotland. A German soldier is seen approaching, and the major gives the order to shoot. Most of the soldiers are reluctant to fire the first post-truce shot, but Jonathan complies. The soldier falls, and the sound of the alarm clock is heard. Audebert waves a white flag and approaches the fallen soldier. It is Ponchel, who borrowed a German uniform so he could visit his mother. With his dying breath he tells Audebert that Madeline has given birth to a son. Palmer sings a hymn to peace.
The French general, who is now revealed to be Audebert’s father, enters, telling the lieutenant that he is being transferred to an out-of-the-way place called Verdun (which with our hindsight we know to have been the locale for one of the war’s bloodiest battles). The two men resolve to stay alive for the child’s sake.
The Kronprinz arrives to tell the German soldiers that they are being transferred to the Russian front. One of the soldiers plays a mournful tune on the harmonica as the soldiers slowly march off. From offstage, we hear one soldier from each army reminisce about the cease-fire, as we hear the sound of the trains transporting the soldiers to their new battle stations.