No, not everyone admires `Sophie's Choice'

Early critics pick on new opera, but it rivets an audience for nearly 4 hours

Classical Music

December 15, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Last weekend's world premiere in London of Sophie's Choice, the new opera by remarkable British composer and Peabody faculty member Nicholas Maw, has generated great interest in the press. And, like every other high-profile contemporary opera, it has prompted a lot of knife-sharpening.

The verdict isn't unanimous by any means, but, so far, the batch of reviews I've seen indicate a negative trend, at least in England. (A sampling follows.) Most complaints are reserved for the opera itself, rather than the intense and imaginative performance at the Royal Opera House. Not surprising, really. An awful lot of observers apparently expect new operas to be unambiguous masterpieces -- or else.

Witness the slamming that Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking got when it was premiered in 2000, and continues to get with each production. That work has a few things in common with Maw's, especially widespread prior familiarity, thanks to starting out as a noted book and then being made into a noted movie. Both operas also have neo-romantic scores that put more emphasis on supporting words than bursting into grand-scale, easily remembered melodies.

A charge leveled by several critics at Heggie is that his music doesn't substantially enhance or transform the drama, but merely accompanies it, like a film score. Those exact sentiments have surfaced about Sophie's Choice.

For me, an opera can be about almost anything, so long as the characters in it and the situations they face are inherently interesting. That's certainly the case with these two particular operas. You couldn't get much more interesting in terms of personal and spiritual conflict.

Whatever flaws can be identified in Heggie's opera, it does yield considerable theatricality; that's one reason why singers and audiences have responded so strongly to it. Likewise, whatever shortcomings are in Sophie's Choice, it would take considerable myopia to claim that it contains no theatrical punch. The absolute quiet in the opera house for every minute of the nearly four-hour piece during the Dec. 7 premiere testifies to its hold on an audience (minus some critics).

I admire Maw's courage and convictions. An opera about the Holocaust cannot help but invite unusual scrutiny and discomfort. But Sophie's Choice is not a black-and-white, good-and-evil story; there is nothing easy about it. And it's really not just a Holocaust story. It's also a complex, triangular love story. Maw has attempted to get all of this, the vast panoply of novelist William Styron's original creation, into his opera. And this generates a richness of emotions and details that, perhaps, no opera could ever absorb fully.

In the end, it wouldn't be such a bad thing if Maw took another look at his score and libretto with an eye toward reduction. It should be possible to keep the characters just as fascinating and multi-layered without so many words, so many scenes. And it may be that the central tragedy of the opera -- Sophie being forced to decide which of her two children must die upon arriving at Auschwitz -- can even emerge somehow more shocking in the process of removing some of the material leading up to it.

But even as it is, the score contains passages of extraordinary beauty and emotional weight; the characters become real and touching; the basic issues of life, death, love, truth and denial -- issues that have propelled many an opera -- are given fresh, absorbing power.

In the end, the value of Maw's new opera will be largely, if not quite fairly, determined by the number of future productions. I suspect few companies, especially among the financially cautious ones in this country, will take the risks involved. But I also doubt that Sophie's Choice will fade from view. At the very least, it should forever hold the distinction of being the first important opera of the 21st century -- and perhaps the first important opera to examine the most severe traumas and lingering questions of the 20th.

Review excerpts

Here are excerpts from reviews of Sophie's Choice:

London Times: "Inside Nicholas Maw's enormous new four-hour opera is a two-hour masterpiece struggling to get out. ... The opera has magnificent music, ... worthy of comparison with Britten and Berg. ... Both those masters, however, edited their literary sources ruthlessly. The fundamental problem with Sophie's Choice is that Maw (who wrote his own libretto) seems besotted with Styron's epic, and particularly with its early Brooklyn scenes which are allowed to run on and on. Consequently, the nub of the matter -- the Holocaust, and the `choice' itself -- seems almost incidental, an afterthought. ... Maw's opera has a bigness of sonority, passion, ambition and spirituality that sends it soaring above the work of his contemporaries. I'm not surprised he didn't want to cut a note. But it would be an even stronger piece if he had done."

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