Sunday, December 15, 2002


The epic new opera by Nicholas Maw, ‘Sophie’s Choice’, is halfway through its premier run at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. Based on the best-selling novel by William Styron (which gained publicity as a film of the same name), Maw’s piece – to which he contributed a libretto based on the original text as well as four hours of music – is produced by Trevor Nunn and allegedly cost nearly £1 million to put on for an initial ten nights ending 22 December, when it is broadcast live on BBC 4.

Part of the expense has been occasioned by the heavily subsidised seats, aimed at placating the usual army of nay-sayers who like to dismiss modern opera as an elitist and redundant art. No doubt flying in Sir Simon Rattle from his new ensconcement with the Berlin Philharmonic cost a pretty penny too.

It has been widely observed that the potential disjuncture between the topic, the medium, the literary form and music makes ‘Sophie’s Choice’ ambitious, to put it mildly. Nicholas Maw is not a fashionable composer. He works in a tonal, lyrical but somehow recognisably modern form without being obviously in debt to either serialism or post-minimalism.

All-in-all this is an event that one can predict will have the critics slavering for a modicum of blood, and that has been the case in a number of instances, in spite of Rattle’s ardent defence of the venture and its music. The Guardian review is not untypical. In the US reactions have been more positive (search on Google for the breadth of reaction), and Le Monde was relatively nuanced.

The British critics, rather pathetically, seem to enjoy picking and digging at anything they see as ‘getting above its station’, and that has been the case here too. I have not had a chance to see the staged work – attempts to get tickets have been fruitless so far – but I have heard a bit if the score on the radio. In places it has a filmic quality, the recitatif is melodic, and the overall sound world is reminiscent of Britten (and sometimes, faintly, Tippett). It often eschews more traditionally operatic styles for cultural inference: folk traditions and flourishes. The denouement of the whole work (a quotation adapted from Ellie Weisel) is enormously moving, and unusually for an opera -- though perhaps not so for one that deals with the sheer artistic and ethical impossibility of the Holocaust -- the few silences are unbearably momentous.

The ROH has taken a considerable risk with this production, and is to be congratulated. Their background information sets the scene well. BBC Radio 3 information has come up trumps as usual. Sequenza 21 has some effective reportage story on ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and on its composer in their issue of 9-16 December. (Search in the back issues if you are reading this after then.)

Sadly this production, which has been commended for its visual impact and cleverness, as well as for the scale of the musical enterprise involved, is unlikely to be revived in the near future – and when it is it seems certain that Rattle will not have time to get behind the baton again. My guess is that it will be pared down to under three hours too. But whenever it appears again in Europe I’ll be there.

There are rumours of a US version, incidentally. The Met in NY has been shameful in its neglect of contemporary opera; a staging there would be quite a coup. And pretty unthinkable, I suppose…

Above all, this is a work of great moral force – what comparable horror is it that we should be avoiding in our age? If aesthetics can claim precedence over ethics in the post-Cold War era, how can this be so? It's up to us in the end... In the meantime 'Sophie's Choice' deserves a place in the twenty-first century repertoire, and Maw merits more than a second hearing.

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