Sophie's Choice

2002

by Nicholas Maw

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 7 December. World premiere
The Royal Opera/Sir Simon Rattle

‘Sophie’s Choice is masterful and simply one of the most compelling operas I have seen. It already has the air of an oft-performed work, not a newly-commissioned piece. Maw’s sense of dramatic pacing is felt at every moment and he outstrips every other composer working today. His dialogue is easily understood yet remains profound. Nunn’s production – one of the most expensive mounted by the opera house (performances are rumoured to cost £100,000 each, double the normal amount for a new production) – is astonishing. The set works on both a horizontal and a vertical level. Despite its four hours, including a 30-minute interval, the performance is the right length and does not drag at all. The audience, which included Chelsea Clinton and Madonna, gave a tremendous ovation at the curtain, with the most applause going to Maw.’
The Sunday Times (Paul Driver), 8 December 2002

‘… the opera has magnificent music, fervently delivered by the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Simon Rattle’s white-hot direction. The first half-hour is deceptively calm; almost Vaughan Williams reborn. Then Maw conjures beguilingly sensuous or exuberantly high-spirited ensembles… But it is the searing orchestral interludes towards the end that really hit the spot. Maw’s “traditional” style – tonal, but laced with killer discords – may once have exasperated the avant-garde. But these days we can only be grateful that someone is writing operatic music worthy of comparison with Britten and Berg… I strongly recommend it. Maw’s opera has a bigness of sonority, passion, ambition and spirituality that sends it soaring above the work of his contemporaries.’
The Times (Richard Morrison), 9 December 2002

‘Maw's opera is an utterly admirable, affectingly conceived and beautifully realized work. The Covent Garden audience awarded him and the cast with a prolonged standing ovation.
From the opening moments of the score, as the strings played subdued, luminous, tenderly tonal sustained chords, like some angelic, bittersweet chorale, Maw's reverence for this material was palpable.

Maw has long been a distinguished musical voice… his language is nostalgic, lushly harmonic, Romantic in its sensibility. In his richly chromatic, acutely rendered harmonic vocabulary, you hear echoes of Mahler, Strauss, the Debussy of "Pelléas et Mélisande," the Berg of "Wozzeck," the neo-Classical Hindemith. The score breaks no new ground. But music rich with a sense of memory is perhaps appropriate for what is really a memory tale. And having pared down the story to its key events, Maw never rushes the storytelling. The opera, in four acts (performed with one intermission) includes nearly four hours of music. Though the pace is deliberate, my interest never flagged.

…Maw's music is hauntingly beautiful and dramatically apt. When a chorus of huddled prisoners, including Sophie and her two children, are crammed into the boxcars of a train en route to Auschwitz, they sing soft, moaning utterances, as the strings play shimmering, parallel modal harmonies, while a wayward solo horn threads through the musical textures and a steady click-clack drum rhythm suggests the inexorable tread of the train. Sometimes Maw's score is tellingly understated, as when Nathan rescues the weak, anemic Sophie after a fainting spell in the library and takes her home, where he cooks a high-in-iron meal of calf's liver and leeks as they tentatively exchange bits of their pasts in music of gentle, lyrical longing, tweaked with dissonance to suggest that there are more painful things they do not share.

…Maw provides rich, challenging roles for the cast, and under the assured direction of Sir Trevor, these singers inhabit them. Kirchschlager is wondrous. There are 17 scene changes and almost each one calls for her to switch costumes and enact a different phase of her life: from an obliging daughter of an intimidating and racist law professor, to a struggling mother in occupied Poland, to a scrawny camp prisoner, to an immigrant struggling to bloom under Nathan's chaotic guidance. Kirchschlager is a lovely woman and a graceful actress. Her singing is sweet-toned yet wistful, clear and true, impressively musical. The American baritone Rodney Gilfry brings his husky voice, rugged good looks and physical agility to Nathan. He captures the dashing energy of the young man in his lucid moments… Gietz is charming and sympathetic as young Stingo, singing with lyrical ardor yet anguished power when challenged by Nathan or in despair over Sophie. Duesing brings his dusky voice and steady presence to the Narrator.

…Rob Howell's evocative set designs employ movable modules against dark backdrops to depict the various rooms and locales. Though the interiors are realistic, the trapezoidal shapes of the rooms give them an eerie, modern look. Sir Simon, a champion of Maw, conducts the music supplely yet incisively. The strings positively glow. He and the orchestra treat this score as if it were “Parsifal.” To quibble overly about a lack of spiky originality in Maw's music is to fault the opera for what it's not rather than to acknowledge it for what it is. Maybe the only way to make opera of Sophie's Choice is to treat the material with deferential and skillful care, as Mr. Maw has done. It deserves a future.’
The New York Times (Anthony Tomassini), 9 December 2002


‘Sophie’s Choice is a powerful exposition of its subject… The warmth of the first night, with standing ovations for Kirchschlager and especially Maw, shows Covent Garden to have an unexpected hit on its hands.’
Seen & Heard (Marc Bridle), December 2002

‘… should be explosively popular… Each act is clearly shaped with a character of its own, almost as if a movement from a symphony. Maw’s deceptive conservatism is well-adapted to the stage: it can deliver anything required with eloquence. His approach is, I think, fundamentally Bergian. His opera of a femme fatale in a world of besotted, mainly benighted men, one that for all its intense passions is no more civilised than a menagerie, could not have been written without Berg’s Lulu. Paralleling Berg’s Animal Tamer, Maw deploys a narrator who remains on stage throughout, monitoring his youthful self, the writer Stingo, and doomed Brooklyn friends Sophie, a Polish (Aryan) refugee from Auschwitz, and her schizophrenic Jewish lover, Nathan. The agonised orchestral interlude that erupts soon after Sophie, at the death camp, has had to choose between saving her little boy or girl, has the expressionism of the Filmmusik from Lulu.

On to this operatic influence, however, Maw has grafted a curious Englishry. The work begins with a soft E major strings chord that slides between harmonies in a manner recalling Vaughan Williams. This music ends the work after a long pastoral threnody… Of course, Maw has taken on the riskiest of subject-matter, and in general he has handled it in such a way that we are harrowed, moved… Nathan, in his upswings, provides some humorous excursions, and there is a magic moment in Act II when he and Sophie dance a tango to a 78 record whose music is seized by the orchestra. Equally uncanny are Maw’s Romantic horn solos that cannot but suggest the disproportion between Weber’s Germany and that of 1943. And I will not forget the ominous timpani strokes — echoing the opening of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova — of the flashback to Sophie’s anti-Semitic father in Cracow…’
The Sunday Times (Paul Driver), 15 December 2002

‘… It is the hardest thing for contemporary composers to write operas that hold together and we are all amazed at how he has held this whole shape in his head and how beautifully it works. Nick has pulled it off and written an astonishingly powerful opera that deserves to go into the repertoire.’
Sir Simon Rattle

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