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Good-Bye, Sophie

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, A Searing 'Sophie's Choice' (Washington Post, September 23)

Tim Smith, Affecting premiere of 'Sophie's Choice' (Baltimore Sun, September 23)

T. L. Ponick, A 'Choice' not for the faint of heart (Washington Times, September 23)

Justin Davidson, Being noble may not be 'Sophie's' best choice (Newsday, September 25)

Jens F. Laurson, Something Difficult About Sophie's Choice (Ionarts, September 26)

Charles T. Downey, Nicholas Maw's Choice (DCist, September 26)

Tom Huizenga, 'Sophie's Choice' Cast Substitution (Washington Post, October 7)
For six performances (Bluebeard/Schicchi had seven, and Butterfly will have nine) this fall, Washington National Opera gave the United States its first hearing of Nicholas Maw's 2002 opera Sophie's Choice. The critics, Jens and myself included, have not qualified the opera as an unqualified success, in spite of significant revision undertaken for this production. However, everyone is (or should be) aware of just how important this event has been, the country's national opera earning its title by taking the financial risk to present a recent opera, by a composer living in the United States. I was happy to attend the final performance of Sophie's Choice Monday evening, both to hear the opera again and write up some final thoughts about it and to listen to the one new cast member, baritone Scott Hendricks, who replaced Rod Gilfry in the role of Nathan Landau for the last two performances.

Scott Hendricks did a fine job as Nathan, although there were a few details of the blocking and staging that he appeared to get confused, not surprising under the circumstances. Gilfry's Nathan was a tall, brutish man, but Hendricks seemed a little more believable as a Jew from Brooklyn. Hendricks handled the vocal demands with appropriate strength, not as brashly powerful as Gilfry but still impressive. Hendricks had good comic timing, getting a few more laughs than Gilfry, but he was not as comfortable dancing or yodeling when Nathan is dressed in a cowboy costume.

This performance also gave me a chance to appreciate some of the singers in minor roles more than I did in my first impression. Clayton Brainerd was a towering presence, vocally and literally, as Zbigniew Bieganski, Sophie's ideologically repulsive father. As the Auschwitz camp doctor, bass-baritone Philip Horst was appropriately vile, with vocal heft and a dreadful sneer. Both made their company debuts in this production. Former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Erin Elizabeth Smith is a hometown favorite, and she was a pleasure in her scene in the third act, including a dramatic duet with Angelika Kirchschlager's Sophie.

The main criticism that I made in my DCist review was that the opera needs more "aria moments." Most of the vocal parts are rather plain, dialogue that is not heightened by music that much. Maw prefers to use the orchestra's swells and dissonant punctuation to point the drama, preferring for the most part to use a style that is more or less "modern recitative." I mentioned in particular two lovely settings of Emily Dickinson poems (in the first and fourth acts), charming set pieces that are woven seamlessly into the story, without being "cliché arias," but that could be and probably are being sung outside the opera in solo recitals. (The second one, "Ample make this bed," ends with an interesting duet between the younger Stingo and his older Narrator self.)

Angelika Kirchschlager as Sophie, Sophie's Choice, 2006, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
Angelika Kirchschlager as Sophie, Sophie's Choice, 2006, Washington National Opera, photo by Karin Cooper
This time around I listened more carefully to other such aria moments, which I noted before but chose not to write about in my initial review. In the first act, Sophie's "I grew up in the beautiful city of Cracow" is a beautiful extended aria relating her (fake) memories of a happy childhood. As a nostalgic experience of a beloved place, it ranks up there with other classic examples of the genre, like Germont's "Di Provenza il mar" in La Traviata. The harp arpeggiation stands in for the mother's piano, wafting through the night air up to little Sophie's room, while the conclusion builds to an impressive climax and recedes. That aria is answered in the same act by Nathan's showtime aria ("This is my show!"), which will probably always be known as the "Iron Aria" ("massive infusions of iron"). It is as comic as Sophie's piece is serious.

Of course, the narrator's prologue and other commentaries could be thought of as aria moments, especially the Coney Island piece ("Coney Island! Golden, effervescent air!"), which is a frenetic evocation of that place. Also in the second act, there is Sophie's "Extermination!" aria, in which the action stops and the character ruminates on her father's loathsome beliefs and her own emotional reaction, or lack thereof, to his death and her husband's death. This is what an aria is classically supposed to do. The tenor role of the Auschwitz Kommandant, Rudolph Höss, has a nice aria moment with "You have been flirting shamelessly with me." Other great examples come in the fourth act with Stingo's sentimental dream about marrying Sophie and having children ("Sophie, on our way down here") and Sophie's letter aria ("Dearest Stingo").

What these parts of the opera have in common is that they temporarily halt the action and allow one role to sing alone and expand on an emotional reaction to what has happened. Monteverdi realized that four hourse of stile recitativo was a waste of musical power. A drama sung only as exchanged lines might as well be a spoken play. Maw has certainly grasped the power of the orchestra to provide a psychological backdrop for the story, and he has allowed the characters a few expansive moments, in which operatic singing becomes a metaphor for heightened declamation. Because the characters sing, true realism is a lost cause in opera, anyway, but what you are supposed to get in return for suspending disbelief is the power of an operatic character to express overwhelming emotion in a situation in which words alone seem to fail, as I put it in my initial review.

All in all, I found this production a success, certainly in the work of the main cast. In particular, Angelika Kirchschlager has inhabited this role in four different national premieres, and her performance will take its place in my mind next to the terrifyingly reserved one of Meryl Streep in the movie made from the same novel. Congratulations to Washington National Opera for bringing this new opera to Washington.

The next production from Washington National Opera will be Puccini's Madama Butterfly, directed by Mariusz Trelinski, scheduled from November 4 to 19.

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