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The Baltimore Sun's review of: Sophies Choice

Affecting premiere of 'Sophie's Choice' Rich music, stellar cast highlight story about Holocaust
By Tim Smith

"...Jeff Bruckerhoff's lighting design becomes especially effective here..."


Documentation of the Holocaust has never been in doubt, except, of course, among a worrisome fringe that now includes at least one head of state. Comprehension of the Holocaust is another matter entirely.

Artists of all types have tried over the decades to open windows into the darkness, windows that historians and sociologists might miss, looking for answers, uncovering still more questions. Among these many efforts is a widely read novel by William Styron, Sophie's Choice, which has been turned by Nicholas Maw into an affecting opera. It received its American premiere Thursday in Washington with a stellar cast led by Marin Alsop, music director-designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

There is so much to ponder in the tragic tale of a Polish Catholic forced to choose which of her two children will be sent to the death chambers of Auschwitz. And there is just as much to ponder in her subsequent fate as a survivor in New York who has an affair with a mentally unstable Jewish man, and who, through friendship with a gentle housemate from the South, slowly reveals her secrets.

The enormity of the Holocaust is never far from the picture -- certainly not in Washington National Opera's production of the work, with hundreds of little photos of the dead forming a backdrop to a stark set -- but the focus is on the individual toll, past, present and to come.

The challenge of an opera about such heady stuff is to give the story added richness and communicativeness through music. Maw, who fashioned his own libretto from Styron's text, has largely done this in a distinctive way. This British-born composer, who is on the Peabody Institute faculty, has an uncompromising style that keeps one foot in tonality, but refuses to follow obvious paths.

During Thursday night's superbly realized performance at the Kennedy Center, I found myself thinking of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, another opera that sounds quite unlike any other, exists in its own harmonic world and unfolds at its own unhurried pace. Like Pelleas, Sophie's Choice achieves an effective tautness, even when there is little propulsion. It creates a complex interior world of sound to reflect the characters' complex interior world of conflicted emotions.

The score can be a little too obvious at times, with lots of agitation in the orchestra at pivotal moments. But you need only hear the soft, chilling chord that accompanies Sophie's first mention of Auschwitz, or the exquisite lyricism that carries two Emily Dickinson poems that tellingly appear in the text, to recognize the work's overall quality.

Since Sophie's Choice premiered at London's Royal Opera House in 2002, Maw has streamlined the score. The Washington production shortens it even more, taking various cuts (including the character of the landlady, Yetta).

The staging, too, is drastically different from that London opening. Instead of massive, super-literal sets, this co-production, with opera companies in Vienna and Berlin, is minimalist. Designer Robert Schweer has the first three acts play out on the same narrow, elevated space -- a yellow wall covered in Statue of Liberty wallpaper, two doors, few props (the only furniture, some diner chairs, doesn't appear until the third act). A telling visual change occurs in the last act to underscore the madness and isolation of the characters, their separate worlds and needs (Jeff Bruckerhoff's lighting design becomes especially effective here). And all the while, there are those sobering photographs framing the action, a curtain of silent witnesses.

The simplicity of the set allows for quick-flowing action, directed by Markus Bothe. He gets a little carried away in the scene where Nathan prepares dinner for Sophie on the night they meet, having Nathan do Fred Astaire turns in the glare of a spotlight. But most of the direction rings true.

Angelika Kirchschlager's portrayal of the title character was a marvel of musical and theatrical insight on opening night, delivered in a richly textured tone. Rod Gilfry's manic Nathan was also revelatory, vocally commanding and inflected with the astute instincts of a master actor. Gordon Gietz made an engaging Stingo, whose declaration of love for Sophie in the last act brought out particularly sensitive nuances in his smooth, warm tenor. Dale Duesing, as the Narrator, proved likewise impressive in voice, phrasing and gesture. The supporting cast did strong work, especially Trevor Scheunemann as Nathan's brother, Corey Evan Rotz as the camp commandant (some cracked high notes aside) and Philip Horst as the camp doctor.

Alsop conducted with extraordinary control and expressive weight (she got one of the biggest ovations), and her attentiveness to detail yielded consistently vivid playing from the orchestra. There are a few spots in the music, the text or the drama of Sophie's Choice, including a flashback to Sophie's anti-Semitic father, that don't quite work, that are more clumsy than incisive. But this is, ultimately, a noble opera, in purpose and spirit.

And, for my money, the final 18 measures of the score -- played by the orchestra after the Narrator sings, "At Auschwitz, tell me, 'Where was God?' The response: 'Where was man?'" -- rank among the most beautiful and touching in the repertoire. Maw resists the temptation to lay on the emotion at this point, but simply has the music slowly evaporate upward, like the Narrator's question, to a dark, unanswering sky.

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