Maw: Sophie’s Choice

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Maw
LABELS: Opus Arte
WORKS: Sophie’s Choice
PERFORMER: Angelika Kirchschlager, Gordon Gietz, Rod Gilfry, Dale Duesing; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Simon Rattle; Royal Opera Chorus/Terry Edwards; dir. Trevor Nunn (London, 2002)
CATALOGUE NO: OA 1024 D (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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It was a sell-out, thanks to Rattle’s presence and the Royal Opera’s relatively cheap ticket-pricing, but the world premiere of Sophie’s Choice suffered a critical mauling.

That no doubt helped to blight Nicholas Maw’s final years, but it had to be said, and still does: this very long and, to start with, loosely shaped opera based on William Styron’s big, bold autobiographical novel can’t keep a firm hold in the repertoire.

Which is a shame, because by the time Sophie, troubled Polish émigrée in 1947 Brooklyn, comes to tell of her terrible choice in Auschwitz, the arching ambition of Maw’s canvas comes into its own, maintaining a symphonic grip that holds through an untrivialised view of the camps through to the final scene’s catharsis. 

Watching it again, I’m enthralled by the close-ups – not always skilfully chosen, as a couple of pulled punches and breathing corpses attest – but the dramaturgy remains bumpy, especially in Act II’s weak curtain, and the angular declamation which puts all the singers under strain from time to time, only fitfully relieved by more singerly lines from the strings, lodges no phrases in the mind. On the plus side, Angelika Kirchschlager’s mobile-featured Sophie wins our deepest sympathy and even puts Meryl Streep’s screen performance out of mind.

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The other singers come close, with Dale Duesing’s anguished, Brittenesque narrator finally achieving balm with his younger self (Gordon Gietz) in a tender setting of an Emily Dickenson poem, though stressed-out Rod Gilfry can’t hope to convey Nathan’s charm as well as his paranoia. Rattle gets all the line and bite the work needs, and briefly enlightens us in an all-too-short extra. David Nice