James A. Altena
, January 2011
When Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice, his operatic adaptation of William Styron’s novel, was premiered in this production, critical reception was mixed, with American reviewers tending to be more favorable than British ones. Those who praised it found the music, the staging, and the story all to be dramatically compelling. Those who found fault particularly focused on what they deemed to be Maw’s overly rigid adherence to Styron’s original text in fashioning his own libretto after the novelist declined to create one for the composer, resulting in an overly long and stilted narrative. Now that the December 2002 telecast of the production has been issued on DVD, viewers and listeners can make their own judgments. I am emphatically on the side of its admirers; while there are faults, this is a major operatic masterpiece, a powerful and searing drama and compelling score that ought to become part of the standard canon.
For those not familiar with either the opera or Styron’s novel, a plot synopsis is in order. Stingo, a young Southerner in his early-20s, moves to New York to pursue his ambition to become a published novelist. In his boarding house he becomes friends with a couple in their 30s, Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowska. Nathan, of Jewish descent, is a research biologist working on a project that might win the Nobel Prize; Sophie, a Polish Catholic émigré from Cracow, works as a receptionist for a chiropractor. While Nathan becomes a supportive mentor for Stingo, his sudden, unpredictable, violent mood swings, characterized by tirades of abusive language against Stingo’s Southern heritage and accusations of infidelity against Sophie, periodically place severe strains on the trio’s relations. While Stingo feels drawn to Sophie, he does not attempt to detach her from Nathan, on whom she is completely dependent.
Gradually, Sophie confides details of her horrific past to Stingo. Her father was a university professor and rabid anti-Semite who contemptuously dictated ranting tracts to her as his unwilling secretary. Her husband, by whom she had a boy and a girl, was her father’s supporter. Despite their racialist views, both men were rounded up and shot as members of the intelligentsia when the Germans invaded and conquered Poland. Wanda, a friend of Sophie, unsuccessfully tried to recruit her into the underground Resistance movement to translate purloined documents regarding the Nazi Lebensborn program for kidnapping suitable young Polish children and placing them with German families to be Aryanized. Both women were later arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where Sophie, fluent in German, became a transcriber and secretary to the brutal camp commandant, Rudolf Franz Höss. On the eve of being transferred to another post, Höss revealed his lust for Sophie and made an abortive attempt to assault her. She first pleaded with him for release by pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer and producing a copy of her late father’s racialist tract, and then begged for her son to be transferred from the children’s camp to the Lebensborn program. Höss contemptuously dismissed the first petition but deceitfully promised to perform the second; Sophie never saw her son again and does not know his fate.
Nathan, sensing the growing emotional closeness of Sophie and Stingo, violently accuses the two of sexually betraying him and storms off. Nathan’s brother, a doctor, meets with Stingo and reveals the truth about Nathan, also previously unknown to Sophie. Nathan’s claim to be a research biologist is a complete fabrication; while intellectually brilliant, he is a paranoid schizophrenic who holds a sinecure position as a librarian’s assistant, which gives him the time to read widely and amass the seeming knowledge about science and literature that enables him to deceive others. Nathan telephones the boarding house and threatens to kill both Sophie and Stingo; they flee on a train toward the farm of Stingo’s parents in southern Virginia. Stopping overnight at a hotel in Washington, Stingo declares his desire to marry Sophie; refusing him, she reveals the last piece of her life’s puzzle, which she has never told anyone else. When she first arrived at Auschwitz with her two children, the camp doctor sadistically forced her to choose which child would be allowed to live and which one immediately executed, and she sacrificed her daughter. In a state of emotional collapse, Sophie finally gives herself to intimacy with Stingo. When he awakens the next morning he finds her gone, with a note stating that she has gone back to Nathan; he returns to the New York boarding house, to find that Nathan and Sophie have taken cyanide and died in each other’s arms.
The novel and opera might well be called Sophie’s Choices instead. The unitary thread is the fateful interrelation of several other choices—submitting meekly to transcribing her father’s anti-Semitic tirades; declining to help the Resistance in a vain effort to shield her children; pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer in a vain effort to win release and save her son; returning to Nathan and committing suicide as a subliminal act of expiation for unbearable pain and guilt—to the central choice of which of her children should die or be spared. “Suppose I had chosen Jan to go instead of Eva…Would that have changed anything?” Sophie wonders to Stingo, and then replies despondently, “Nothing would have changed anything.”
Lasting some three and a half hours, this is an intensely demanding work. Much of the adverse criticism focused upon the first two acts, which are primarily devoted to exposition and development of the relations between Stingo, Sophie, and Nathan, as being too drawn-out and failing to move the action forward with due speed to the core of the story in the third and fourth acts. I disagree; while judicious nips and tucks could tighten the dramatic structure at a few points, time and space are needed to develop the characters and their interactions in order for the revelations of Sophie’s past and the resulting consequences to have their full impact. A second and more justified criticism concerns Maw’s decision to create as a key role a narrator embodying Stingo some 30 years after the events. Unlike Captain Vere in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, who only appears briefly in a prologue and epilogue, here the older Stingo is omnipresent, not only introducing every scene but also (at least in the staging) an intrusive voyeuristic presence in it, which is particularly ill-judged for the flashback scenes of Sophie’s life from before she met Stingo. The narrative passages assigned to him are relatively flat and pedestrian, both as words and music; a skilled librettist would have found ways to minimize or eliminate such a role and have the characters themselves introduce the action and motivate the transitions. Still, the device has its effective moments, especially the powerfully challenging conclusion where the narrator queries, “At Auschwitz, where was God? The response: Where was man?”
The music itself is composed in a post-Romantic, Expressionist vein of a central European rather than British flavor, with its closest kin being Berg and late Bartók; occasional passages remind one of Hindemith and American composers such as William Schuman, while the scene of intimacy between Sophie and Stingo inevitably brings to mind the comparable interlude from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The score is largely tonal, though atonality is employed at critical points such as Sophie’s choice upon arriving at Auschwitz. A jagged, see-sawing, ascending motif recurs throughout in various guises as a unitive thematic device. Dynamics and instrumentation tend to be low-key and subdued, with the full ensemble generally reserved for major climaxes in the action. There is little in the way of overt melody, though a few passages, such as lines of an Emily Dickinson poem on death and Sophie’s farewell note to Stingo, are cast in a more lyric style like abbreviated ariosos. However, while no “big tune” or discrete memorable musical moment stands out from the score, that does not mean it is nondescript or dull; on the contrary, except for the aforementioned parlando recitatives for the narrator, the music is invariably so apt at expressing and underlying the dramatic action that it does not call attention to itself as a separate element, but instead achieves the intended integration of a Gesamtkusntwerk.
The performance itself is superb. Angelika Kirchschlager is absolutely riveting in the central role of Sophie, and dominates all the action. Her voice has a rare combination of lyrical lightness and dramatic weight, alluring tonal sheen and penetrating bite, with rock-solid steadiness and exemplary diction, that together enable her to encompass the extraordinary gamut of emotions required by the role of fragility, tenderness, insecurity, fear, and terror. It would require a heart of stone not to have tears well up in one’s eyes at her performance in the climactic Auschwitz scene. As Nathan, Rod Gilfrey is likewise brilliant, superbly modulating his securely produced baritone to shift instantaneously with the character’s polar mood swings between exuberant bonhomie, tender affection, vicious sarcasm, and full-throated ranting. Gordon Gietz is a winsome young Stingo, with a pleasing tenor of medium weight and clear timbre, though occasionally he inadvertently slips out of his character’s mild Southern accent. As the Narrator, Dale Duesing is vocally somewhat weaker; his once firm baritone is now rather dry and unsteady in the upper register. Dramatically, though, he is exceptionally compelling, in physical gesture and facial expression as well as vocal phrasing, and makes his rather thankless role as engaging and plausible as possible. Among the shorter roles, special commendation must be given to Jorma Silvasti as Commandant Höss; his light, bright tenor agilely negotiates an often fiendishly high tessitura with total security. Veteran bass-baritones Stafford Dean and Alan Opie dispatch their respective roles as Sophie’s father and the Nazi doctor effectively; Stephanie Friede is an impassioned Wanda, though her soprano has a somewhat unpleasant edge to it. The acting by all the singers is unusually fine, detailed, and natural; one could almost watch this as a spoken play instead of an opera. Simon Rattle, long an advocate for Maw’s music, conducts with complete authority. The recorded sound is clear, favoring the singers over the orchestra. The sets and costumes are realistic and the camerawork adept, though the stage lighting tends to be somewhat dim. A plot synopsis, cast gallery, and short interview with Rattle are included. For anyone who cares about opera after Puccini, this is a release that commands attention.