A Searing 'Sophie's Choice'

In "Sophie's Choice," Angelika Kirschlager, right, portrays the title character and Erin Elizabeth Smith is Wanda. (Photos By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 23, 2006

Samuel Johnson, the first great literary critic, wrote a marvelously cogent and perceptive introduction to the plays of William Shakespeare. Yet he confessed that one scene was simply too much for him -- Othello's slaughter of his loving, faithful wife, Desdemona, after the "Moor of Venice" has fallen for a slander so sleazy and unfounded that it might have been cooked up on K Street. The resultant horror was "not to be endured," Johnson observed.

I suspect that many people may have had a similar response to the central dilemma in "Sophie's Choice," whether in the best-selling novel by William Styron, the award-winning film by Alan J. Pakula starring Meryl Streep or, most recently, in the 2002 operatic adaptation by Nicholas Maw, which received its American premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Thursday night.

The "choice" that is presented to the heroine, Sophie Zawistowska, as she prepares to enter Auschwitz could not be more devastating: Her Nazi captor tells her to pick one of her children for instant extermination, with the none-too-reliable promise that she can "keep" the other one. If she does not choose, both children will be murdered straight away. "Not to be endured" pretty well sums it up.

Maw, a 70-year-old composer born in England and currently living in the Washington suburbs, was inspired to create an opera out of "Sophie's Choice" after seeing the film. The libretto, which he fashioned himself, is mostly made up of scenes that are to be found both in Styron and in Pakula. The result is in all ways a serious venture -- in its grandeur, its ambitions, its soaring, searing music and opulent orchestration -- and Washington National Opera has surpassed itself with the unstintingly high standards of its production.

There remains the big, pragmatic, essential question -- does it work ? And here we break out the waffles, as my own answer, after one encounter, must be a qualified "sort of." 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.

And yet "Sophie's Choice," even after the considerable trimming it received following the premiere performances, remains a long evening in the theater -- almost 3 1/2 hours with one intermission. I don't know exactly what I would cut -- virtually nothing is shoddy or second-rate -- but something should go. William Faulkner's famous advice to young writers -- "kill your darlings" -- takes on hideous implications when applied to this particular opera but remains sound. There is too much of a good thing.

Part of the problem is the unhinged character of Nathan, Sophie's post-Auschwitz lover, who was brought to life so brilliantly by Kevin Kline in the film. Without an extraordinary actor in the role (working within the bounds of an extraordinary script), Nathan is not a believable figure, and it is impossible to imagine that anybody would put up with his sudden flights into violence and belligerence. After all, a dog only has to go for the throat once for most of us to forget happier times; exceptions are possible, of course, but it would have to be one astonishing creature. Baritone Rod Gilfry, for all of his dashing presence and splendidly modulated, immaculately in-tune singing, never quite managed to convince us of any extenuating circumstances.

Angelika Kirchschlager, as Sophie, has nothing in common with the gentle, aching pathos Streep brought to the role. On the contrary, she is all flame and ferocity, a gyrating orb of emotion so intense that she called the extraordinary singing actress Teresa Stratas to mind. Gordon Gietz sang fervently and distinctly as Stingo, while Dale Duesing, as his older self (the story is told as a long flashback, in the manner of Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd"), brought just the right mixture of passion and resignation to his small but vital part. Indeed, all the cast members -- Erin Elizabeth Smith as a noble and indelible Wanda, Corey Evan Rotz as the Commandant, Philip Horst as the ghastly and unforgettable Doctor, Trevor Scheunemann, Clayton Brainerd, James Shaffran and Michael Nansel -- were beyond praise.

Finally, Marin Alsop, conducting the Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, delivered the finest performance I've ever heard from her -- all but technically flawless (not once did she allow her players to drown out the singers, despite the complications of the music) but also an interpretation that was shot through with nuance, clarity, sweep and musical intelligence. The stage direction (by Markus Bothe) and set designs (by Robert Schweer) were both eloquent and appropriate, the action taking place in an island of light surrounded by darkness. Countless photographs of anonymous dead line the walls, as if to remind us that this was only one excruciating story from the calamitous 20th century and that there were millions more.

There will be five more performances of "Sophie's Choice" through Oct. 9. Information: 202-295-2400 orhttp://www.dc-opera.org.

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