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Feb 2003 Journal

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Sophie’s Choice: a major artistic achievement

Sophie’s Choice, an opera by Nicholas Maw based on the William Styron novel, received a warm reception at its premiere at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Among the singers was Angelika Kirschlager as Sophie, part of a superb cast, conducted with fervent intensity by Sir Simon Rattle in an imaginative and well-acted staging by Trevor Nunn.

Sophie’s Choice filters its response to history through literature. Styron’s novel, popularised in the famous film, highlights the universal moral that the Nazi regime was not solely antisemitic, but, above all, anti-life. The story centres on a Polish Catholic woman who lives with her Jewish lover Nathan, stained with an intolerable memory: at Auschwitz she was forced to choose which of her two children would be taken to the gas chambers. Sophie’s tale is told to a young American writer, Stingo, tellingly portrayed by Gordon Gietz, who shares their Brooklyn boarding house yet whose older self – Dale Duesing - appears between each scene to narrate the story in a type of recitative. Indeed, the opera is as much about Stingo’s choice to become a writer, as about Sophie’s choices, the last of which is to stay with the jealous Nathan, richly sung by Rodney Gilfry, eventually entering into a suicide pact with him. The lyrical music of the final scene is one of the many beautiful moments, its poetry and symbolism linking it with Wagner’s Liebestod, Maw’s musical evocation of Sophie’s redemption of her past.

Nicholas Maw’s musical style is original, neo-modernist rather than avant-garde, influenced by mainstream twentieth-century music, Berg’s Wozzeck and Britten’s Peter Grimes, Mahler and Schoenberg. And always responsive to the moods of the action, even though some key moments require more time and space for the necessary impact. Overall the music works as music, but whether it is entirely successful as opera is an open question.

But the four hours move briskly, with luscious slow tableaux and genuine fast music. Among the memorable highlights is the big-band ‘radio’ music when Nathan and Sophie invite Stingo to visit Coney Island. A tango for Stingo and the wonderfully Brooklyn Yetta Zimmerman (Frances McCafferty) gradually merges with the ‘radio’ band music. Especially moving was the requiem-like chorus which accompanies the Auschwitz train scene. The searing orchestral music after Sophie’s argument with her father over his racism is another musical highpoint, as are several orchestral interludes.

Even so, there is a sense in which Maw’s music never quite reaches the angst-ridden level necessary for the story, though it comes close to expressing the madness of the Nazis and Nathan, who turns out to be a paranoid schizophrenic. The Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Hoss is surely portrayed in too sympathetic a light, within a largely lyrical part, albeit finely projected by Jorma Silvasti. Later it is the camp doctor, a convincing Alan Opie, who ‘allows’ Sophie the choice of saving one child. When her daughter is taken away, the silence seems to be broken too soon, and the musical flow restarts before the horror is fully assimilated. Underlying this scene and the Auschwitz scenes is a memorable orchestral chord, elusive and dissonant, a type of leitmotif evoking the pain of the Holocaust, yet also transformed, remarkably, into the love music for Sophie and Stingo. At the end of the opera the original chord returns, leaving the audience with what Rattle described as the ‘unbearable tension’ of its lingering dissonance.

With some revision, Maw’s opera could become what Rattle has described as one of the major operas since Britten. The test will be whether it is taken by any of the major companies in the coming year. It seems particularly apt for the American public, and, one hopes, also for the rest of the world.
Malcolm Miller

previous article:Central Office for Holocaust Claims