Last weekend's world premiere in London of Sophie's Choice, the new opera by remarkable British composer and Peabody faculty member Nicholas Maw, has generated great interest in the press. And, like every other high-profile contemporary opera, it has prompted a lot of knife-sharpening.
The verdict isn't unanimous by any means, but, so far, the batch of reviews I've seen indicate a negative trend, at least in England. (A sampling follows.) Most complaints are reserved for the opera itself, rather than the intense and imaginative performance at the Royal Opera House. Not surprising, really. An awful lot of observers apparently expect new operas to be unambiguous masterpieces -- or else.
Witness the slamming that Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking got when it was premiered in 2000, and continues to get with each production. That work has a few things in common with Maw's, especially widespread prior familiarity, thanks to starting out as a noted book and then being made into a noted movie. Both operas also have neo-romantic scores that put more emphasis on supporting words than bursting into grand-scale, easily remembered melodies.
A charge leveled by several critics at Heggie is that his music doesn't substantially enhance or transform the drama, but merely accompanies it, like a film score. Those exact sentiments have surfaced about Sophie's Choice.
For me, an opera can be about almost anything, so long as the characters in it and the situations they face are inherently interesting. That's certainly the case with these two particular operas. You couldn't get much more interesting in terms of personal and spiritual conflict.
Whatever flaws can be identified in Heggie's opera, it does yield considerable theatricality; that's one reason why singers and audiences have responded so strongly to it. Likewise, whatever shortcomings are in Sophie's Choice, it would take considerable myopia to claim that it contains no theatrical punch. The absolute quiet in the opera house for every minute of the nearly four-hour piece during the Dec. 7 premiere testifies to its hold on an audience (minus some critics).
I admire Maw's courage and convictions. An opera about the Holocaust cannot help but invite unusual scrutiny and discomfort. But Sophie's Choice is not a black-and-white, good-and-evil story; there is nothing easy about it. And it's really not just a Holocaust story. It's also a complex, triangular love story. Maw has attempted to get all of this, the vast panoply of novelist William Styron's original creation, into his opera. And this generates a richness of emotions and details that, perhaps, no opera could ever absorb fully.
In the end, it wouldn't be such a bad thing if Maw took another look at his score and libretto with an eye toward reduction. It should be possible to keep the characters just as fascinating and multi-layered without so many words, so many scenes. And it may be that the central tragedy of the opera -- Sophie being forced to decide which of her two children must die upon arriving at Auschwitz -- can even emerge somehow more shocking in the process of removing some of the material leading up to it.
But even as it is, the score contains passages of extraordinary beauty and emotional weight; the characters become real and touching; the basic issues of life, death, love, truth and denial -- issues that have propelled many an opera -- are given fresh, absorbing power.
In the end, the value of Maw's new opera will be largely, if not quite fairly, determined by the number of future productions. I suspect few companies, especially among the financially cautious ones in this country, will take the risks involved. But I also doubt that Sophie's Choice will fade from view. At the very least, it should forever hold the distinction of being the first important opera of the 21st century -- and perhaps the first important opera to examine the most severe traumas and lingering questions of the 20th.
Here are excerpts from reviews of Sophie's Choice:
London Times: "Inside Nicholas Maw's enormous new four-hour opera is a two-hour masterpiece struggling to get out. ... The opera has magnificent music, ... worthy of comparison with Britten and Berg. ... Both those masters, however, edited their literary sources ruthlessly. The fundamental problem with Sophie's Choice is that Maw (who wrote his own libretto) seems besotted with Styron's epic, and particularly with its early Brooklyn scenes which are allowed to run on and on. Consequently, the nub of the matter -- the Holocaust, and the 'choice' itself -- seems almost incidental, an afterthought. ... Maw's opera has a bigness of sonority, passion, ambition and spirituality that sends it soaring above the work of his contemporaries. I'm not surprised he didn't want to cut a note. But it would be an even stronger piece if he had done."
The Sunday Independent: "Questions remain over the quality of Maw's four-act opera, which, in common with many of the last decade's operatic adaptations of pre-existing novels and films, has added less to Styron's original than it has subtracted. ... The grandiloquent pace of Maw's score is strikingly at odds with his hesitant, near-conversational vocal lines and diffident Samuel Barber-meets-Max Steiner orchestration."
Financial Times: "The whole point of music is to express what cannot be said in words or pictures. ... Instead of doing this, Maw presents us with a sung novel, parroting the narrative structure and dramaturgical sprawl of the book. ... Maw's concern to touch all points of the narrative, especially in the jumbled order of the novel, prevents him from allowing any scene or character to develop in depth."
The Daily Telegraph: "I can't believe it will last. Without prejudice, Sophie's Choice turns out to be mildly disappointing and a bit of a bore. ... There is much craftsmanship to admire. Without offering any great arias or memorable lyrical episodes, the score is gratefully written for the voice. ... But [Maw] is not instinctively theatrical; he has no sense of concision and no gift to surprise the ear. ... Sophie's Choice rambles on at a leisurely pace and gets nowhere. It has no edges, no ambiguities, no crackle of tension. Even when the story arrives at the ultimate destination of Auschwitz and Sophie's terrible bargain, the music has nothing to say, beyond throwing up its hands in a fortissimo of horror."
New York Times: "Mr. Maw's opera is an utterly admirable, affectingly conceived and beautifully realized work. ... Even in the score's most fraught and lashing moments ... there is a sense of reserve, of music providing commentary, not of claiming a subject in a bold new way. ... But music rich with a sense of memory is perhaps appropriate for what is really a memory tale. ... Though the pace is deliberate, my interest never flagged. ... The score disappoints in climactic moments of anguish and horror. Here Mr. Maw lays it on thick, with fractured harmonies, fitful lines, raucous brass and clashing percussion. ... To quibble overly about a lack of spiky originality in Mr. Maw's music is to fault the opera for what it's not rather than to acknowledge it for what it is. Maybe the only way to make an opera of Sophie's Choice is to treat the material with deferential and skillful care, as Mr. Maw has done. It deserves a future."