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EDITIONS
Sunday, 8 December, 2002, 15:32 GMT
Sophie's long, but brave, choice
Nicholas Maw and Angelika Kirchschlager, photograph by Catherine Ashmore
The ticket prices were lowered

The Royal Opera House's production of Sophie's Choice marks another stage in the venue's battle to attract a wider audience.

It was gala night at the Royal Opera as the stars of stage and screen turned out for the world première.

Among the luminaries were Hollywood actress Meryl Streep and theatre director Peter Hall, and there were no empty seats for a production which is already sold out for its entire run.

But this was no ordinary opera, but a reworking of the 20th Century's greatest tragedy, the Holocaust.

And at Covent Garden they were pulling out all the stops for the new work by British composer Nicholas Maw.

The orchestra was directed by Simon Rattle, now conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and the lead was played by the brilliant Austrian soprano Angelika Kirchschlager in her Royal Opera debut, while the sets and direction were by Trevor Nunn, head of the Royal National Theatre, and his leading set designer Rob Howell.

Caught up

William Styron's controversial novel, on which the opera is based, highlights the moral dilemma of the death camps in two ways.

He makes the central character, Sophie, a Polish Catholic who is inadvertently caught up in the round-up of Jews despite her professor father's anti-Semitic beliefs.

And when she arrives at the camp, a Nazi doctor gives Sophie -who is arrested with her two children - the impossible choice of deciding which child will be allowed to live.

The guilt of the survivor dominates Sophie's life when she arrives in New York and begins a doomed affair with the appealing but increasingly mad Nathan, a Brooklyn Jew.

Mr Maw, who wrote the libretto as well as the music for the opera, decided to keep the structure of the book.

Too long

This was probably a mistake - it slows up the action and means that many of the most dramatic moments -including Sophie's choice, and her flight and final suicide - are not so much sung as recreated in silent actions to music.

And it increases the length of the opera: at four hours, with only one interval, it is probably one act too long.

In fact, the whole production seems to fall somewhat between a sung recital and a tragic musical, with no arias that stand out for their music alone.

But the director, Trevor Nunn, who last produced Porgy and Bess at the Royal Opera, has done an outstanding job, and never has an opera been better acted.

Angelika Kirchschlager is outstanding as the doomed Sophie, both in her musical range and her acting ability, plumbing the depths of despair as well as moments of ecstasy with Nathan.

Final madness

She is well supported by Gordon Gietz, making his Covent Garden debut as Stingo, the sensitive writer who is inadvertently caught up in the tragedy.

More problematic is Nathan, sung by American baritone Rodney Gilfry, whose final madness is never convincingly displayed.

And in the surprisingly comic role as the Landlady, Yetta Zimmerman, Frances McCaffery, nearly steals the show every time she appears on stage.

But the real star of the production is the spectacular sets by Rob Howell, so spectacular that they made this one of the most expensive Covent Garden productions ever.

Although the opera is only partly a success, it is part of a brave attempt by the Royal Opera to realise contemporary, even difficult, works - at a time when the Royal Ballet is scaling back its ambitions to the trusted classics.

Even better is the low ticket prices (£50 maximum) in an attempt to attract a new audience.

And it was the new, young part of the audience that was the most enthusiastic, providing many curtain calls for the new stars.

Sophie's Choice plays at the Royal Opera House until 21 December. It will be shown on BBC Four on 21 December at 7pm.

See also:

06 Dec 02 | Entertainment
29 Nov 02 | Entertainment
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