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
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape