Maw: Sophie's Choice
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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." -- Opera News, Matthew Gurewitsch
"Sir Simon Rattle is something of a Nicholas Maw fanatic who once famously refused to re-sign his EMI contract if he was not allowed to record the composer's orchestral marathon Odyssey. Maw's last completed score, Sophie's Choice, proved to be another long work: a three-and-a-half-hour setting of William Styron's novel (and, a bit, of Alan J Pakula's Meryl Streep-starring movie). Rattle has declared it to be an "instant classic". He certainly conducts, and has prepared, the opera as if it were just that. There are no tonal, or serial, surprises or novelties here but a fluent use of a 20th-century orchestral palette that certainly `knows' Berg as much as BartÃ³k and, in the two American-set opening acts, Copland.
Onstage, Angelika Kirchschlager's Sophie and Dale Duesing's never absent Narrator have that lived-in commitment and detail of facial expression that are the hallmarks of Trevor Nunn's Personenregie. And, at the crux of the action (Act IV, scene 4), Alan Opie contributes a frighteningly soulless portrait of the SS Doctor who forces Sophie to make a chilling Caucasian Chalk Circle choice for real - one child to live, one to go to the gas chambers.
One might say, glibly, so far so good - but this opera, at least on early acquaintance, has a problem. As Alex Ross observed in his overview of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise: "The novel is able to give brief, frightful snapshots of Sophie's past, but the opera has trouble getting out of Brooklyn, a difficult borough to orchestrate". The theme of the sensitive young outsider rooming with troubled psychotics has been well treated in plays (A Streetcar Named Desire) and musicals (Cabaret) but Maw waits too long (more than one and a half hours) before firing off his big gun - Sophie in Auschwitz. When he does, or is about to, Acts III and IV power by. It's then that the Berg-like idea of big orchestral interludes comes into its own and the scenes in America (really only a framing device) find their dramatic purpose.
This attentively filmed record is based on one performance at London's Royal Opera in December 2002. It suggests that a less naturalistic approach to the look (drab) and action (oddly formal) of the indoor Brooklyn scenes might help the lengthy first two acts. Such an alternative might even hint at the comedy and the graphically described sexual frustrations of young Stingo that Maw omitted from his treatment of the novel. Sound and vision are excellent but, disappointingly, Opus Arte's only `extra' is the briefest of interviews with the conductor." -Mike Ashman -- The Classical Review: May 28, 2010
Audio & Visual
All very fine indeed, with the DTS sound almost blowing up the speakers in some places. The diction of the singers is exemplary, but there are times when the musical lines become so complex that subtitles are a necessity (notably the fight in the cocktail bar).
The sets are quite drab, but when there are bright colours they stand out confidentally and Mark Henderson's lighting is captured impressively...
...there are some incredibly beautiful and affecting sections of music, most notably when the libretto quotes the poetry so prevalent in the original story, no more so than at the end, when Stingo picks up the book of Emily Dickinson from Sophie's dead hand and reads the poem `Ample make this bed'. Following this are words and musc which you have waited a long time to hear, when the older Stingo asks "At Auschwitz, tell me, 'Where was God?' The response: 'Where was man?'". Here, Maw allows us to imagine the horror and salvation of the last three and a half hours without dictating our emotions, and it's almost worth the wait.
There is absolutely nothing to complain about with the performances.
Rattle conducts the work as if he really does believe, albeit a little misguidedly, that this is one of the best British operas of the last few decades and the orchestral playing is phenomenal throughout.
On stage, the singing and acting is fantastic, with Angelika Kirchschlager making the role her own. Not being a first-language English speaker, her accent is suitably `Polish' and yet her diction is superb (as is everyone's). She even manages to make a lot of sense of Maw's sometimes quite jagged musical lines, and in fact, all the main characters actually make much of the stilted dialogue come to life, which is somttimes a difficult thing to do when lifted almost verbatim from the page.
Maw has unfortunately left out a lot of the depth these people deserve, and so Nathan Landau is a very `black and white' paranoid schizophrenic, yet even with this yoke, Rod Gilfrey is capable of being wonderfully menacing and gushingly romantic within moments.
The `central' character of Stingo is, as I mentioned, sung by two people. The younger, Gordon Gietz, sings with a great Southern twang, exuding the innocence he would like to get rid of as soon as possible, and has a fine, lightish, tenor voice. The elder (`The Narrator') Stingo is performed by the baritone Dale Duesing (so Stingo's voice has obviously broken over the years) and it is he who is on stage for the longest, or so it seems. His character has to go through the emotions of every other character on stage, and this can sometimes lead to a bit of hamming-up, but this is Peter Hall's fault. Duesing's voice is strong and lasts the considerable distance, leaving the final statement to create the almost unbearable emotional punch you have been waiting for (bar Kirchsclager's animal-like scream after sacrificing her daughter to the gas chambers).
Since this first production, the opera has travelled to Europe and the States (in different productions and with different music directors). Maw himself shortened the work considerably for future performances, and some of the conductors even added a few more cuts. I think it's great Opus Arte have had the guts to release the whole thing, as it shows, if nothing else, the importance of contemporary opera in modern culture, and that the company of the Royal Opera have few equals around the globe. -- MyReviewer.com, Alan Titherington, February 19, 2010
Sophie's Choice, composed by British composer Nicholas Maw to his own massive libretto, made a lengthy drawn-out evening when it was premiered at Covent Garden in 2002. But now that it has finally been released on DVD (OpusArte OA 1024 D) it's possible to see what conductor Simon Rattle meant when he called it "an instant classic" in a bonus interview here. There's much to appreciate in Maw's moving work, with its tender melodies, atmospheric harmonies and searing orchestrations. I can't imagine a more impassioned, convincing cast, especially with Canadian tenor Gordon Gietz as the impressionable young writer, Dale Duesing as his older self, who narrates this tragic tale, Rod Gilfry as the charming and dangerous Nathan, and above all, Angelika Kirschschlager in a fearless, unforgettable performance as the doomed Holocaust survivor Sophie. Director Trevor Nunn shapes the too-frequent scene-changes and flashbacks into a compelling narrative, which gains resonance with each viewing. By the time narrator sings the final lines, "At Auchwitz, tell me, where was God? The response: where was Man?", the incalculable cost of the Holocaust for all of humanity is inescapable. -- The Whole Note, Pamela Margles
Top Customer Reviews
Apparently, the person who wrote the review saying there was "no melody" doesn't have the foggiest idea of the powerful musical content in this work. Actually, there is over three hours of melody in the opera, one after the other, interwoven in an incredibly intricate fashion. Sometimes very complex, sometimes as simple as the profoundly beautiful Dickinson settings of "Because I Could Not Stop For Death"and "Ample Make This Bed". The libretto, written by Maw, comes directly from Styron's novel and much of the vocal writing alternates from a quasi "recitative" style (which dictates the pace of action) to incredibly lyrical, dramatic high points throughout the opera.
This work is not for the musically timid and will take the average listener more than one hearing to begin to comprehend its content.
It was in fact the film that first attracted Maw to this work, then the novel and then he sought out Styron himself in Vineyard Haven to ask him to write the libretto. Styron declined but suggested that Maw write himself. As we've seen rom both Wagner and Sondheim, this is ALWAYS most effective.
And Maw did a good job.Read more ›
On the other hand as in the two other operas mentioned above the performances are truly awesome, especially Angelika Kirchschlager as Sophie. These are also extremely demanding roles. Sophie is on stage for most of the evening and Gilfrey and Duesing are not far behind. As theater this is a wonder. But I would never think of seeing it again. Here too the DVD is the best way to see it. For one thing 5 hours in an opera house is an endurance contest. Plus you would not see the subtle acting from a seat far from the stage. These are great singing actors. But they need something great to sing.