Photo Journal: Sophie's Choice Premieres at Washington National Opera

Classic Arts News   Photo Journal: Sophie's Choice Premieres at Washington National Opera
Sophie's Choice, Nicholas Maw's opera based on William Styron's chilling novel, received its North American premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House last Thursday (September 21) from the Washington National Opera — to mostly excellent reviews.

The opera has been revised since its December 2002 debut at the Royal Opera House in London, which received mixed reviews but was sold out for its entire run. This new staging by Markus Bothe, a co-production shared with the Vienna Volksoper and Deutsche Oper Berlin, replaces the stage realism of the Covent Garden world premiere (directed by Trevor Nunn) with a more abstract approach; the score has also been cut from 4Ô_ hours to just over three.

Baltimore Symphony music director-designate Marin Alsop conducted a cast whose principal members remain the same as in London. Angelika Kirchschlager reprised her lavishly praised portrayal of the title role, with Rod Gilfry as Nathan, Gordon Gietz as Stingo and Dale Duesing as the Narrator.

In Newsday, Justin Davidson wrote that Maw "has embraced the stratagems of his American colleagues: a mix of lyricism and expressionistic tension and tonal harmonies acidified by conversational rhythms, so that the characters discuss a trip to Coney Island in a kind of Yankee recitative." He also found that "Maw's technique as a composer takes this piece a long way toward success; his earnestness and reverence for the Styron novel hold it back."

The Washington Post's Tim Page said that the company "has surpassed itself with the unstintingly high standards of its production." He added, "I suspect that the score is even better than it sounded, melding consonance and chromaticism in a way that is lyrical, luminous and generally easy on the ear while remaining intellectually interesting throughout."

Critics seemed to agree that mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirschlager was excellent as Sophie; while opinion was mixed on baritone Rod Gilfry's dramatic interpretation, critics agreed that he was superb vocally. Alsop's interpretation was also praised.

Tim Smith, writing in the Baltimore Sun, thought that Sophie's Choice is, "ultimately, a noble opera, in purpose and spirit." He wrote that the score was a "little too obvious at times" — a thought echoed by Justin Davidson — but that "you need only hear the soft, chilling chord that accompanies Sophie's first mention of Auschwitz, or the exquisite lyricism that carries two Emily Dickinson poems that tellingly appear in the text, to recognize the work's overall quality."

Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice runs at the Kennedy Center Opera House through October 9; information and tickets are available at

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