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

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