After a six-hour dress-rehearsal so fraught with mechanical problems that it had to be abandoned before the final scene, the world premiere of Nicholas Maw's £500,000 operatic adaptation of William Styron's controversial 1979 Holocaust novel Sophie's Choice opened to standing ovations at Covent Garden last night.
Despite technical glitches in Trevor Nunn's ambitious, multi-layered staging, the central performances of Angelika Kirchschlager and Rodney Gilfry as doomed lovers Sophie and Nathan were deemed to be among the most committed and convincing ever seen at the Royal Opera House.
Dubbed "the most significant British opera of the last 50 years" by its conductor, Sir Simon Rattle,Sophie's Choice has proved to be a surprise commercial success for Covent Garden. Demand for tickets to the first night is said to have been so high that the premiere could have sold thrice over.
But questions remain over the quality of Maw's four-act opera, which, in common with many of the last decade's operatic adaptations of pre-existing novels and films, has added less to Styron's original than it has subtracted. With three and a half hours of music, the grandiloquent pace of Maw's score is strikingly at odds with his hesitant, near-conversational vocal lines and diffident Samuel Barber-meets-Max Steiner orchestration.
Despite retaining the voice of Styron's Narrator (the excellent Dale Duesing) – an older and wiser incarnation of Stingo (Gordon Gietz), the Southern ingenu who loses his heart to Polish Catholic Auschwitz survivor, Sophie – Maw's libretto has, like Alan J Pakula's Oscar-winning film adaptation of 1982, lost much of the perceptiveness, precision and musicality of Styron's prose. Crucially, the novel's carefully-drawn parallel between Stingo's guilty legacy (that of inherited complicity with slavery) and Sophie's (an inherited complicity with Polish anti-Semitism) has gone, making "the banality of evil" a mere background to the more traditional operatic themes of female suicide, madness and erotic obsession and reducing the novel's more subtle series of moral choices to one schlocky moment.
Though Sophie's Choice set out to be the first major opera about the Holocaust, Luigi Dallapiccola's concise 1949 opera The Prisoner remains the most powerful musical response to the terrors of fascism.
Sophie's Choice plays to 21 December at the Royal Opera House (020 7304 4000), returns only. Broadcasts 10 December on BBC Radio 3 and 21 December BBC TV Four. Anna Picard's classical music review appears today on page 9 of LifeEtc.