The Royal Opera – Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice [an opera in four acts with libretto by the composer based on the novel by William Styron]

Sophie – Angelika Kirchschlager
Narrator – Dale Duesing
Stingo – Christopher Lemmings
Nathan – Rodney Gilfry
Yetta Zimmerman – Frances McCafferty
Zbigniew Bieganski – Stafford Dean
Wanda – Stephanie Friede
Rudolph Franz Höss – Jorma Silvasti
Doctor – Alan Opie
Librarian – Adrian Clarke
Eva – Abigail Brown
Jan – Billy Clerkin
Bartender – Darren Jeffery
Larry Landau – Quentin Hayes

Trevor Nunn – director
Rob Howell – designs
Mark Henderson – lighting
David Bolger – director of movement

Royal Opera House Chorus [Terry Edwards – chorus director]
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House [Peter Manning – concert master]
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 December, 2002
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The fact that all six performances of this premiere staging of Sophie’s Choice were sold out weeks in advance says something about the anticipation generated by the production. And, at almost three and three-quarter hours, Nicholas Maw’s first opera in three decades is certainly on a scale to match the profound questions demanded by an examination of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Which is not to say that ambition should be confused with attainment.

The main drama is set in Brooklyn, New York during the summer and autumn of 1947, with extended flashbacks to Sophie’s meeting and involvement with Nathan in 1946, her arrest in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and transferral to Auschwitz in 1943, and – the root of her moral dilemma – her home in pre-war Krakow, where she takes down the proto-Nazi nationalism of her Professor father who, like her husband, perishes in the German invasion: a telling irony rather glossed over in the narrative.

The crux of the opera lies in the choices that Sophie makes and has made. As a Pole arriving at Auschwitz, she is given the option of saving one of her two children. ’Sacrificing’ her daughter will haunt her every decision, with the circle closed only by her second choice – to return to Nathan, with whom she dies in a joint suicide pact: a cruel end to a fractured existence, but an ’atonement’ nonetheless. Which makes the generalised, Spielberg-ian emoting of these climactic scenes all the more dismaying – well-intentioned melodrama lacking substance and devoid of catharsis.

Part of the problem lies in Maw’s libretto, its derivation from William Styron’s novel all too evident in the wordiness of the dialogue – compounded by the literalness of the dramatic pacing. In particular, the first two acts – at 55 and 47 minutes respectively – are bogged down in extraneous detail which detracts from any underlying momentum: an hour-long act struggles in vain to break free. The latter two acts – 57 and 53 minutes – are better focussed dramatically if not without being prolix. Moreover, there’s a tendency to characterise later emotional situations in a way that makes them seem a replay rather than intensification of what came before. Act Three’s confrontation in the Maple Court Lounge is one example of a highpoint whose gestural impact fails to release its dramatic tension.

All of which would have been of less consequence were the music of greater emotional force and stylistic focus. Maw has been mining a vein of post-Romanticism for some four decades now – his commitment to, and prowess in, a language long-held to be unfashionable has been considerable. Yet there seems little doubt that the writing of Sophie’s Choice is several steps too far in terms of a sustainable musical idiom. The Britten-ised Vaughan Williams of the Narrator’s soliloquies is just the start of an eclecticism that takes in composers as diverse as Barber, Walton and Weill – often evoked at little more than face value.

The orchestration is unexceptionally fine – but, like the always singable vocal writing, seldom inspires. Each of the first three acts culminates in self-consciously dramatic terms recalling Menotti’s brand of verismo. The orchestral interlude bridging Sophie and Stingo’s night of intimacy and Sophie’s fateful return to Nathan attempts a Bergian catharsis, which it quite fails to deliver. Such from the composer of the lyrically impassioned song-cycle Scenes and Arias and the finely-honed irony of the opera The Rising of the Moon can only be judged a failure.

The performance, cast from strength, is emphatically a success. Making her British stage debut, Angelika Kirchschlager sings superbly and portrays Sophie’s emotional turmoil with consummate dramatic instinct. The scene at Auschwitz station is almost saved by her charged emotional input, while the contradictions in character which emerge over the course of the opera are given a palpable humanity. This is musical acting of the highest order: Kirchschlager should be invited back to the Royal Opera without delay.

Musically and dramatically, the two principal male roles are less convincingly drawn. Rodney Gilfry projects Nathan’s enveloping schizophrenia with undoubted urgency, but the character’s violent mood-swings seem artificial in their extremes – with even aspects of the ’positive’ persona grating in their conceit. Replacing an indisposed Gordon Gietz, Christopher Lemmings worked hard to make an engrossing portrayal out of Stingo’s passive naivety, his lyric tenor making the most of the vocal writing. Stephanie Friede is sympathetic as the ill-fated freedom fighter Wanda, and Jorma Silvasti gives an ironic twist to Camp Commandant Höss.

There are vivid cameos from Frances McCafferty as the liberated landlady and Stafford Dean as Sophie’s hollowly authoritative father. Alan Opie is in his element as the Camp Doctor, his conscience more troubled by the decisions he inflicts on the inmates than might have been supposed. Dale Duesing’s Narrator is earnestly appealing, but his continual onstage presence gives him more the feel of an interfering voyeur than a detached onlooker.

With its sliding and interlocking stage sets, Trevor Nunn’s direction makes full use of Rob Howell’s immediate designs, though the frequent use of a split stage to simultaneously portray differing times and places does not avoid trickiness – for all that Mark Henderson’s lighting is economical and dramatically effective – while the Auschwitz scenes risk confusing archetype with cliché.

A special word for Sir Simon Rattle’s marshalling of the orchestral component. Few first-stagings can have enjoyed such advocacy, whether in thoroughness of preparation or in authority of execution. Throughout, the Royal Opera House Orchestra’s playing is generally beyond praise. What a pity, then, that the overall excellence of the performance and production was not matched by a score of greater dramatic conviction and intrinsic musical quality.

  • Further performances on December 16, 19 & 21 at 7 o’clock
  • Performance on 21st broadcast live on BBC 4 [Freeview 10; Sky 161]
  • Box Office – 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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