- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

It is difficult to characterize Nicholas Maw’s “Sophie’s Choice,” the almost-new opera that made its American debut Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The Washington National Opera’s slimmed-down version of the 2002 41/2-hour original — now a bit over three hours, including intermission — certainly has brought the work into tighter focus. Yet this is the kind of evening that seasoned operagoers may never have experienced before.

Musically and dramatically organic — in the manner of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, where characters, actions and musical themes and motifs are tightly intertwined and where the orchestra has its own character to play — “Sophie’s Choice” (based on William Styron’s tragic post-Holocaust novel) draws the audience into a depressing universe where one woman’s private anguish serves as a microcosm for the collective horror the past 100 years have wrought.

The powerful feelings boiling over in Mr. Maw’s treatment of the novel clearly are the stuff of which tragic opera is made. In fact, “Sophie’s Choice” is less an opera than an uncomfortable, immersive encounter with the mass hell that the 20th century twice embodied and that the 21st century threatens to embrace once more. As such, the opera won’t be to everyone’s liking.

As with any new work, a significant minority of the opening-night audience quietly made use of the exits during intermission. One suspects that this was less because of the disturbing pulse of the composer’s remarkable music — which, while dissonant at times, was permeated with a distinctive neo-Romanticism — than to the work’s unbearable subject matter. Many of those who remained were visibly shaken during the fourth act’s impassioned cataclysm, a feeling that was sustained throughout the quietly depressing extended coda.

Such a work requires strong acting as well as singing, and the cast did a superb job on both counts. As the young Southern novelist Stingo, tenor Gordon Gietz was excellent as a supporting character drawn deeply into a tragic romantic triangle. As the Narrator, Stingo’s older self, somber baritone Dale Duesing provided lyrical commentary from the perspective of time.

Baritone Rod Gilfry was highly effective as the crude, hyperactive, ultimately schizophrenic Nathan Landau, who becomes Sophie’s lover and chief tormenter. Also, Corey Evan Rotz, Trevor Scheunemann, Philip Horst, Clayton Brainerd, Erin Elizabeth Smith, James Shaffran and Michael Nansel performed their crucial supporting roles well, including the surprising choral ensemble that erupts in the opera’s third act.

Nevertheless, without a doubt, the star of the evening was mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, who sang the title role of Sophie Zawistowska. Constantly onstage, Sophie is the opera’s emotional key, and the role is as strenuous as it is emotionally draining. Miss Kirchschlager triumphed over the opera’s vocal and technical difficulties with a clear, sweet tone that portrayed her triumph and her tragedy. She created this role in the London production, and she clearly continues to own it today.

A hat tip as well to the assured and modulated conducting of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s music director-designate, Marin Alsop, who once again demonstrated a deft and sympathetic touch with a modern score.

However, not all was well with this production. Markus Bothe’s direction was somewhat busy but passable. The biggest negative was the cheap-looking postmodernist, post-minimalist set by Robert Schweer. Meant as an antidote to the expensive and constant scene changes of the original, Mr. Schweer’s underwhelming design went too far in the opposite direction. The yellow substage that dominated the first three acts looked like a gussied up salvage-yard bargain, and its lack of steps forced the characters to clamber clumsily up and down as if on a mountaineering expedition. By contrast, Mr. Schweer’s backdrop portraits of the countless, nameless dead were stunningly effective, but their quiet disappearance at the work’s close was marred by a noisy malfunction.

***

WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: Nicholas Maw’s “Sophie’s Choice”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Tomorrow at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 30 and Oct. 9 at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: $45 to $250

PHONE: 202/295-2400 or 800/ US-OPERA (876-7372)

WEB SITE: www.dc-opera.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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