I went last night to the Washington National Opera to see Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice. For such a new opera this one has an astounding production history, having already been produced at the Royal Opera (2002), in Berlin and in Vienna. (See here)
I have decided my three things, theater-music-singing, will work very well for evaluating this opera.
There needs to be a holocaust opera. Our souls require it. Maw has done an excellent job of adapting the novel by William Styron, perhaps a better job than the movie. We now know that the choice of the title is not her choice to die with the brilliant and obviously schizophrenic Nathan instead of live with Stingo. No. That isn't it. The choice, asked at the gate to Auschwitz, is the emotional heart of the opera: choose which of your two children shall live.
It is an opera about love--romantic love, the love of friendship, and the love for ones children. I have a friend with two small children, a boy and a girl, and in that moment the choice became her choosing between them. This is the right play for the holocaust.
The production is an expressionist bare scene with a screen of photographs of holocaust victims behind.
It worked as theater. How did it work as music and singing? The opera was conducted by Marin Alsop. I sat in the second row and could easily see into the orchestra pit. Both times Ms Alsop came out, the orchestra made rumbling sounds with their feet and stood as she mounted the podium, not waiting for her to ask them to rise. At first I thought they were going to play the national anthem again as they had done to begin the season. It is an accolade such as I have frankly never seen. Perhaps they always do this, and I never noticed.
Sophie's Choice is firmly in the tradition of opera as symphonic poem (see gorilla), in this case a firmly post-modern symphonic poem, with a somber atmosphere that did not challenge us intellectually. It was appropriate to the subject and quite beautiful.
Which brings us to the third thing: singing. All of the music for the singers resembled monody more than anything else. It was a kind of lengthened speaking with no ornaments or repetitions. There was no pointillism (big jumps from low to high notes), just droning speech. If Monteverdi is to be praised for breaking away from the theoretical monodists and providing true arias to attract our ears, cannot we criticize a modern composer for failing to do this? Wagner, the inventor of opera as symphonic poem, knew how to use his idea as a platform for dramatic singing, to achieve great melodies for his singers. Maw gives us only heightened speech. Maw, a professor of music at Peabody in Baltimore, knows how to use the instruments of the orchestra for effect, but I think there is no modern technique for how to write for singers.
All of these highly professional singers sounded hoarse and strained, as though they were required to push their voices to achieve dramatic effects when the notes were not in a comfortable tessitura. Someone writing for the voice properly would make sure that the dramatic effects and the appropriate tessitura were in synch. Also, it is much more comfortable to sing all over the voice, with plenty of high and low notes. They all seemed to be struggling with a restricted range, a range in which they all eventually tired.
I cannot say there was any distinguished singing. It's not their fault. They weren't given anything to distinguish themselves with. Angelika Kirchschlager was significant and beautiful as Sophie. We did not get Rod Gilfry, but Scott Hendricks was fine, though he did much better with his fake southern accent than with his supposedly normal Brooklyn one.
Perhaps there should be a manual on how to compose for singers. Professor Maw came up for a bow at the end. His opera is performed for its moving atmosphere and for its relevance, a relevance of great necessity, but not for its singability.