Sophie's Choice, Royal Opera House, London

Gabriele Consort and Players, Shoreditch Church, London

Guilt, genocide, madness, masochism, sexual obsession ... and schlock

Can a sell-out success be regarded as a failure? In the case of Nicholas Maw's deeply flawed operatic adaptation of William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, I think it can. Not just in terms of a dramatically inexperienced composer's presumptuous attempt to translate a complex novel about guilt, genocide, madness, masochism, cultural legacy and sexual obsession to the stage, but in terms of the series of high profile misjudgements at Covent Garden and the BBC that gave this hopelessly misconceived project the production values of a West End musical and the hyperbolic tag of "the most significant British opera for 50 years". (A quote from its conductor, Simon Rattle.)

Should we reconsider the significance of Harrison Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus or Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice in the light of Sophie's Choice? I think not. In common with many recent operatic adaptations of successful novels and films, this unsteady four-hour creation displays great uncertainty over how much knowledge the composer can assume on the part of his audience. Have they read the book or seen the film? Do they know that Sophie is a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz, that her lover Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic Brooklyn Jew, or that Stingo, the young Southern writer in love with both of them, is living on an inheritance built on slavery? Maw's ransom-note collage of Styron's dialogue is most unenlightening. "I am the avatar of menteuses" sings Sophie; a quite meaningless line to use in the libretto unless you know that through the summer of 1947 Sophie has been devouring the works of William Faulkner.

Maw seems terribly unsure of what to leave in and what to lose. In the book, Sophie's fad for Faulkner is but a tiny fibre in the strong literary thread that binds the three main characters. Music – a thick seam of shared passion for the sublime – is reduced in the opera to one giddy tango on a balmy Brooklyn afternoon. Doubtless this is an easier dance to incorporate into the score than a Handel bourrée but the sole appearance of the tango in Styron's original is, ironically, during the selection process at Auschwitz when Sophie is forced to choose which of her two children should be spared the gas chamber. In the novel (and Alan J Pakula's 1982 film adaptation), that grotesque scene is one of many choices Sophie makes; the final one being to die with Nathan. But her inability to escape a morally compromised past is less the result of her penchant for priapic psychotics than a reaction to the Nuremberg trials that daily dominate America's newspapers. And so the near-pornographic anguish of one beautiful blonde and the intolerable suffering of the millions of less glamourous concentration-camp victims are carefully balanced in a fine mesh of literary art and documentary detail.

This balance of social and personal history is beyond Maw. If the themes of the novel are diminished here, so too are its characters: Sophie (Angelika Kirchschlager) is a sexy shiksa with a tragic tattoo, Stingo (Gordon Gietz) a starry-eyed virgin, Nathan (Rodney Gilfry) a nut, Höss (Jorma Silvasti) a B-movie Nazi. It is to the infinite credit of Kirchschlager, Gietz, Gilfry, Silvasti and, in particular, Dale Duesing (Narrator) – who holds Maw's narrative and Styron's style in his face and voice – that they extend these thumbnail descriptions where Maw cannot. The passion of each performer is tangible, their diction perfect (in the case of Kirchschlager, too perfect), their singing superb, their acting magnificent.

Maw's score negotiates American idioms while trying to dodge the long shadow of Aaron Copland in his settings of Emily Dickinson. Many of his near-conversational vocal lines instead resemble those of Samuel Barber's Vanessa, as does the pellucid colouration of the rapt opening chords; a nostalgic memory of sunlight glancing on the East River. If the tightly packed woodwind stretto and strenuously lush Act IV intermezzo hint at early Berg, these are Viennese devices filtered through an American lens, and not just the lens of art music. "Auschwitz" – a word that Maw only colours after the fact, as though suddenly overcome by moral fastidiousness – is punctuated by a shivery diminished chord of the sort favoured by Bernard Herrman and the rat-tat-tat skitter of a snare drum, the progress to the death camps by a yawning horn solo after the style of Hollywood emigré Max Steiner, the unforgiveably anonymous chorus of Jewish transportees by biblical epic moans of "ooh" and "aah". Were these not tasteless enough (and the latter makes John Williams's score for Schindler's List seem like Berg's Violin Concerto), the plaintive flute motif (self-consciously stamped as artless, whatever that means in the context of opera) that Maw uses to symbolise Eva, the child that Sophie does not choose, reminds me of the uillean pipes in Titanic. Yes, there is music of quality in Sophie's Choice – whole minutes of it, all beautifully sung and played, and conducted with ferocious focus by Rattle – but schlock like that far outweighs the moments of subtlety or insight.

Which brings me to Trevor Nunn's staging. Grandly designed and grossly button-pushing, Nunn's production compounds the problems with this over-long, over-budgeted opera. Where a simple change in lighting could signal a shift in scene – the opera cuts between five different time periods – we have lavish tracks and lifts and projections. Scene by scene it is sumptuous yet profoundly unsuggestive. Nunn's attempt at cinematic slickness turns the transport to Auschwitz into crude coups de théâtre. (Look! Cattle-cars!) Worse still, more attention is paid to the bustle of post-war Brooklyn – a smoothly choreographed traffic of chattering secretaries, slack-jawed demobs and flickering phylacteries – than the barely controlled chaos of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Though the journey from Warsaw would have taken 30 hours, Nunn's well-tailored chorus might be strap-hangers on the A-train. For countless other mothers in that cargo of 2050 victims – of whom nearly 2000 were gassed – their arrival also meant having their children torn from their arms. Try as I might, I cannot understand why Nunn thinks it acceptable to be so explicit with mechanical imagery while glossing over the well-documented brutality and misery of this process, or why he has not allowed these cyphers some individuality and humanity. To write an opera about Auschwitz is, pace Theodor Adorno, perfectly permissable. To make Auschwitz a lurid intensifier for an over-wrought soap opera is not.

The Gabrieli Consort's luminescent account of Cantatas 1-3 of the Christmas Oratorio in the chill intimacy of Shoreditch Church – the opening concert of the Spitalfields Winter Festival – was as uplifting as Sophie's Choice was dismaying. With a chorus of only four joining soloists Cecilia Osmond, Michael Chance, Charles Daniels and Roderick Williams in the choir, this was a richly nuanced, tender reading that decorated even the chorales with delicious grace notes and brought to the fore this group's earthy, elegant and immaculately tuned quartet of oboes. The continuo playing, recitatives and arias were delightful, Katy Bircher's flute solos transparent and delicate, the pacing and linking of individual movements ideal, the string playing briskly brilliant, the singing bright, intelligent and generously phrased. And if I couldn't quite shake off the lingering discomfort of Sophie's Choice, it was because I remembered that, in the novel, Bach is the composer whose music Sophie and Nathan choose to die to. Listening to Chance's unutterably serene singing of Schlafe, mein Liebster, it was a choice I thoroughly understood.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Sophie's Choice': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to Saturday. Spitalfields Winter Festival: London E1 (020 7377 1362) to Friday

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London