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Maw: Sophie's Choice / Rattle/Royal Opera, Kirchschlager, Gietz, Gilfry [2 DVD]

Album Summary

>Maw, Nicholas : Sophie's Choice
Performers Conductor Ensembles Composer

Notes & Reviews:

In 2002, Nicholas Maw's opera Sophie's Choice, based on the novel by William Styron, was given its premiere at the Royal Opera House. The subject had struck Maw when he had first watched the film several years previously, and he immediately felt it would be 'the most extraordinary basis for an opera'. Commissioned by the Royal Opera House and BBC Radio 3, Maw embarked on an adaptation of Styron's book, which took six years to complete. Conducted by Simon Rattle, a long-term enthusiast of Nicholas Maw's music, and with a wonderful cast, the work won international acclaim and was later restaged in Washington, Berlin and Vienna. "The central performances of Angelika Kirschlager and Rodney Gilfry...were deemed to be among the most committed and convincing ever seen at the Royal Opera House." The Independent

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.

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."-Fanfare

While not flawless, it is a rich and compelling score that bravely and successfully tackles a subject of great moral and artistic stature, in contrast to the ephemeral, gimmicky, and self-absorbed creations of too many contemporary composers. Sir Simon Rattle, a longtime champion of Maw's music, conducts a top-notch vocal cast in an effective staging that is always intensely engaging and ultimately profoundly moving.

Notes & Reviews:

Run Time: 223 min.
Region: All
Picture Format: NTSC, 16:9, Color
Sound Format(s): LPCM Stereo, DTS 5.0 Surround
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian


Moving literary adaptation
Opera has long been a very effective vehicle for transferring classic literature into a poignant musical experience. Recent indelible examples include " McTeague " by William Bolcom, " Emmeline " by Tobias Picker, " A Streetcar Named Desire " by Andre Previn and " Willie Stark " (after "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren) by Carlisle Floyd. Immediately add to this list of "must see" contemporary operas, Nicholas Maw's opera "Sophie's Choice" , an opera inspired by William Styron's acclaimed novel. (Actually, Maw's initial inspiration resulted his rental of the film version with Merryl Streep!) Nicholas Maw was born in England in 1935 and just passed away in 2009. In the 1980s, he began dividing his time between Britain and the United States, becoming a longtime resident of the Washington, D.C., area. Maw's major compositions include an evening-long concert work called Odyssey , and a Violin Concerto written in 1993 for violinist Joshua Bell. He has also written two other operas, both comedies, called One-Man Show and The Rising of the Moon . Maw contacted the author himself and asked Styron if he might be interested in writing the opera's libretto. Styron declined, but suggested that the composer write the libretto himself and that's exactly what Maw did. The opera was eventually composed on a commission from the BBC and London's Royal Opera House, which presented the premiere in 2002. A recent release of the Royal Opera House production, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, is certainly well worth seeing at home with a nice sound system (Opus Arte DVD 1024)! Like most of Maw's later compositions, the language is tonal and the emotional impact is strong. The cast here is the same as that from its American premiere with the Washington National Opera and features Angelika Kirchschlager as Sophie, Rod Gilfry as Nathan Landau, and Gordon Gietz as Stingo. (Gilfry in particular has made a career on contemporary opera and excels at portraying a charismatic, brooding male who is inwardly quite troubled - see his Stanley Kowalksi in Previn's "Streetcar"!) In this opera setting, strong compliments also go to the always fascinating Dale Duesing who sings the narrator (an older Stingo) For any admirer of the movie or the original novel, who might be wondering, the opera truly lives up to the searing emotional impact of both, packing music and drama you won't soon forget. Sophie has an almost ironic predilection for the poetry of Emily Dickenson. The closing scene in which Stingo discovers that Sophie has died while reading Dickenson as the narrator answers the famous question about Auschwitz ("Where was God?.... Where was Man?") will almost certainly choke one up and did bring tears to my wife. Production values are top notch and this piece and this DVD are an essentail addition to any collection of operas written over the past thirty years by wonderful composers any where.
Submitted on 05/26/10 by Dan Coombs 
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Works Details

>Maw, Nicholas : Sophie's Choice
  • Performers: Dale Duesing (Voice); Gordon Gietz (Tenor); Rodney Gilfry (Baritone); Angelika Kirchschlager (Mezzo Soprano)
  • Conductor: Simon Rattle
  • Ensemble: Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
  • Period Time: Contemporary
  • Written: 1999-2002
  • Studio/Live: Live