Art is long, but life is short, as the saying goes, and audiences need to catch the last train home. Bowing to that necessity, Giuseppe Verdi cut Don Carlos for its Paris premiere in 1867. At the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 2002, the librettist–composer Nicholas Maw refused to take the blue pencil to Sophie's Choice, which was running to three-and-a-half solid hours of music in four acts, with one intermission. What was management to do? They sent ticket-holders a letter suggesting they make special overnight arrangements.
The production was a gilt-edged affair. Angelika Kirchschlager starred as a Polish Catholic Auschwitz survivor with dark secrets. The director was Trevor Nunn, working in juggernaut mode, with masses of hyperrealistic moving scenery built in '40s-film-noir-style forced perspective. Simon Rattle conducted. But despite some raves ("utterly admirable, affectingly conceived and beautifully realized," Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times) and subsequent exposure (a half-hour shorter) in a coproduction shared by Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Vienna Volksoper and Washington National Opera, Sophie's Choice has shown no signs of gaining further traction. Perhaps the current release of the telecast from Covent Garden two weeks after the premiere will improve its outlook.
Derived from William Styron's novel by way of the movie, the opera in its original form plays like prose fiction unceremoniously dumped on the stage. Stingo, the aspiring Southern writer who falls in with Sophie and her unstable lover Nathan in a Brooklyn rooming house, has been split into a ruminative middle-aged Narrator (baritone Dale Duesing) and his likable youthful self (tenor Gordon Gietz). Like the histrionic doppelgangerof Schubert's song, the talky onlooker who refuses to slink away gets on one's nerves. A payoff of sorts arrives with an Act IV duet for Stingo's two avatars. But surely Maw would have been better served by a single figure such as Britten's Captain Vere, in Billy Budd, who moves freely from the present tense of narration to the present tense of enacted events.
As librettist, Maw often strikes a tinny note, if only in following Styron to the letter. Sophie sings good English when the context indicates that Polish or German is being spoken. In Brooklyn, her English is gratuitously peppered with French and lapses of grammar that are too inconsistent to sound convincing. One feels an author penning the lines. The same is true when the schizophrenic Nathan waxes polysyllabic with eloquence or cuts loose with abusive profanities. Even in Rod Gilfry's raw, go-for-broke performance, such passages sound totally fake. They might work in a play, but they do not sing.
Orchestrally, too much of the score proceeds in a single broad, all-purpose, vaguely dissonant neo-Romantic style. The first clue that Maw has more than one string to his expressive bow surfaces in Act II, when the dowdy landlady Yetta Zimmerman (Frances McCafferty) tips Stingo off to the lax morals at her establishment. (We seem to hear the sequence through the horn of a Victrola.) In a serious vein, concise Holocaust flashbacks centering on Sophie show the economical, resourceful hand of a dramatic master. One noteworthy scene reveals the adolescent's discovery of the true nature of the father she later pretends to idolize. Another finds her as a young mother en route to Auschwitz with her children. The moment of arrival, when she must choose life for one of her children and certain death for the other, is quieter than one might expect — and wrenching.
In Sophie, Maw has created a truly great part. A ravishing beauty shattered by events, she inhabits a shadow world of lies, self-delusion and denial, yet she remains capable of fleeting rebirth and love. She has many choices to make, not just one, and is scarred or haunted by each one. In music tailored to her voice, Kirchschlager conveys Sophie's ambiguities with devastating transparency, always in the moment, her tone pristine, her diction immaculate. She has set the bar high. To date, no one else has done the role, but singing actresses for generations to come should find Kirchschlager an inspiration.
Angelika Kirchschlager; Gordon Gietz, Rod Gilfry; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Simon Rattle. Production: Trevor Nunn. Opus Arte OA 1024 D (2 DVDs), 223 mins., subtitled.