The review of: Sophie's Choice

Nicholas Maw's Choice
SEPTEMBER 26, 2006

"The somber lighting emphasizes the silvery reflection of the costumes..."

For reasons that I understand but dislike, new operas are the hardest tickets for most American companies to sell. For Washington National Opera, whose audience is largely allergic to anything outside the familiar repertory, it must be difficult to reconcile what a major American opera company should be doing — performing recent operas and commissioning new ones — with the overwhelming concern for the bottom line. All the more reason, then, to praise WNO for mounting the American premiere of Nicholas Maw's 2002 opera, Sophie's Choice. Let us hope that the performances will make the company enough money not to discourage further experimentation with new operas, but the number of empty seats in the Kennedy Center Opera House on Sunday afternoon, while not scandalous, was enough to make me worry. If you wish the WNO were not always producing the same old operas, you are obligated to see one of the four remaining performances.

Some readers may not be familiar with the story of Sophie's Choice from either William Styron's 1979 novel or Alan Pakula's powerful 1982 film adaptation, with the flawlessly inflected and agonizingly fragile, porcelain performance of Meryl Streep in the title role, so I will not reveal all of it here, because it deserves to tell itself for the first time in all its terrible power. It is narrated by Stingo, a southern writer who moves into a boarding house and becomes entangled in the complicated love story of Nathan and Sophie, two refugees from reality whose lies Stingo patiently unravels bit by bit. He ultimately learns about Sophie's childhood in Poland, how she survived the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, and the source of Nathan's jealous and violent rages against Sophie. It is not an easy story, by any means, although Styron infuses the characters with humor in their flights of fancy.

Nicholas Maw wrote the libretto himself, and he took most of the dialogue the characters sing directly from the novel, language that sometimes comes across as unsingable ("massive infusions of iron" and "I turned my piercing mind to the seething arcana of human protoplasm" come to mind). Adapting the opera for performances in Berlin and Vienna and now Washington, Maw has made significant and necessary cuts (for more background on the opera, see my preview from last week). The music is strikingly beautiful, with Maw's style best described as solidly neo-tonal, allowing for occasional forays into more dissonant territory. Maw writes for a very traditional orchestra with a sure hand — harp, celesta, some unusual percussion are the strangest things we get — heavily favoring lush string sounds, triads glistening with a quicksilver coating of non-chord tones. Winds and brass have brief solo roles and in large numbers and full dynamics punctuate major moments in the score. It is all held together in this production by conductor Marin Alsop, the future music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who has made a name as a specialist in leading new scores.

Angelika Kirchschlager's name will forever be associated with the role of Sophie, as she has sung it in the world, German, and American premieres and is indeed the only singer to have performed the role. She was dramatically and vocally supreme once again. Rod Gilfry is a fine baritone, whom I admired as Prospero at Santa Fe Opera this summer in another American premiere, The Tempest by Thomas Adès. He was absolutely believable as the menacing, unhinged Nathan, both by his height (he picked up the fainting Kirchschlager in their touching library scene with no trouble) and vocal power, slightly frayed around the edges. Tenor Gordon Gietz (the young Stingo) and baritone Dale Duesing (Narrator, the older Stingo) were equally good, as were the supporting cast, including local favorites Corey Evan Rotz (Rudolf Höss) and Erin Elizabeth Smith (Wanda).

Markus Bothe's production, with sets designed by Robert Schweer, mostly stays out of the story's way. Stingo's narrative takes place on a small yellow stage (in the fourth act, when the world of the boarding house has gone to pieces, the yellow stage is disintegrated into four parts). Sophie leaves that stage within a stage to confront characters from her past, on the actual stage, which is cluttered with debris and surrounded by photographs symbolizing the past (actually of employees of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where the production premiered, as I learned in a question-and-answer session after the Sunday performance) hanging like leaves on trees. The somber lighting (Jeff Bruckerhoff) emphasizes the silvery reflection of the costumes (by Dorothea Katzer) worn by characters from the past, which are lightened from their dark colors on the shoulders and upper torso.

My only complaint about the opera is that Maw largely avoids operatic expansiveness. The opera is a compelling drama, but much of it is narrated in a form of modern recitative (a fact acknowledged by Marin Alsop and the singers at the panel session after the performance). Without having to stoop to cliches like the traditional aria, Maw has woven a few beautiful and highly emotional pieces of expressive singing into the opera, such as both of the Emily Dickinson poems ("Because I could not stop for Death" in Act I and "Ample make this bed" in Act IV). I wish there were more of these "aria moments."

Least convincing of all, when Maw relates the most tragic moment of the opera with only Sophie's anguished cry, that is, without her singing, it feels like he has abdicated all of his compositional responsibility. I made the same point about Jake Heggie's decision to end his opera Dead Man Walking with only the sound of hospital machines clicking and whirring. Try to imagine the death of Violetta in La Traviata with the more realistic sound of a consumptive's death, that is, someone unable to sing those final high notes. Yes, it would be more "realistic," but highly frustrating as opera. Opera can do so much more than theater by having people sing, and sing demanding music strongly, at those very emotional points in the story, precisely those situations in which words alone seem to fail.

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