by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Jan. 6, 2003.
Opera houses are supposed to be fantasy places, where outlandish lovers meet and villains spiral to their inevitable fates. To present an opera about the Holocaust—as the composer Nicholas Maw has done, with "Sophie's Choice," which recently had its première in London—shuts down the usual rituals of escape. I was surely not the only one at the Royal Opera House who felt a kind of aesthetic panic when, toward the end of the evening, the tenor Jorma Silvasti came onstage as Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, singing about crematorium construction. Are there limits to what music can express? Should such evilness be sung, made to sound half beautiful? At the edge of the tolerable, the opera has given us a glimpse of what Hannah Arendt called the "word-and-thought-defying" mystery of the Nazi mind.
"Sophie's Choice" is based on the grand, harrowing novel by William Styron, which follows a spiritually wounded Polish Catholic woman back in time, from a boarding house in Flatbush into the inferno of Auschwitz. The opera also takes sidelong glances at Alan J. Pakula's film version, which starred Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. It is an astonishingly ambitious conception, but Maw—a sixty-seven-year-old, cherub-faced Englishman, who is currently on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory—has always had a world-conquering strain: in 1987, he completed a ninety-minute-long orchestral piece called "Odyssey," which sounds like all of Richard Strauss's tone poems played simultaneously. Some may wonder, listening to "Sophie's Choice," whether Maw's neo-Romantic, pan-Germanic style achieves sufficient philosophical distance from its subject; after all, Wagner, Bruckner, and Strauss were featured on the soundtrack of Nazism. Yet this composer has unswerving faith in the nobility of his inherited language, and the score gives the impression of music brooding deeply over its own tormented past.
Clocking in at four hours, the opera is also deeply long. Maw wrote his own libretto, which may have been unwise. As John Harbison recently showed, with "The Great Gatsby," composers who adapt literary texts sometimes get lost in the shady groves of their favorite phrases. The first part of "Sophie's Choice"—in which Stingo, a young Southern writer, gets to know, or thinks he gets to know, Sophie and her lover, Nathan—is dramatically slack. The novel is able to give brief, frightful snapshots of Sophie's past, but the opera has trouble getting out of Brooklyn, a difficult borough to orchestrate. The music has a forced joviality; there are too many passages in robust triplet rhythms, redolent of the cow-pat symphonies of the English school. For a long time, we seem to be stuck inside an oddball Anglo-Jewish "Streetcar Named Desire."
In the second part, which consists of two long acts run together in a two-hour marathon, Maw finally rises to the occasion. Far-flung string lines, sustained with phenomenal concentration by the Covent Garden orchestra, under Simon Rattle's direction, seek but do not find the repose of transcendence—there is no "ah" of arrival, nor should there be. Maw, an idiosyncratic harmonic thinker and an orchestrator of surpassing brilliance, gives even the plainest chords a glint of steel. The scene of the choice, in which one of the camp doctors forces Sophie to make his selection for him, has thunderous impact, and, after an interlude worthy of Strauss's "Elektra," the exorcism seems complete.
The production, by Trevor Nunn, handled diverse locales handsomely, but it made only a token gesture toward the horror of Auschwitz. The work deserves a bigger, weightier production. The music, however, could hardly have been better sung or played. Angelika Kirchschlager gave a fiercely expressive performance as Sophie, taking her voice from warm mezzo regions toward the heights of a dramatic soprano. Rodney Gilfry brought vocal heft and physical grace to the role of Nathan, though he was unconvincing as a mad genius. Dale Duesing did a remarkable turn as the ever-lurking Narrator; he sang eloquently and made his face a mirror of the action. Gordon Gietz was robust as young Stingo; Silvasti and Alan Opie courageously tackled the unrewarding roles of Commandant Höss and the Doctor. Rattle lit up the entire piece with the heat of his belief.
The night before the "Sophie's Choice" première, the Hebbel Theatre, in Berlin, staged Steve Reich's "Three Tales." This work, too, challenges our preconceptions of what an opera stage can sustain. A high-tech operation involving voices, instruments, recordings, and video images, "Three Tales" conjures up, in the space of about an hour, the crash of the Hindenburg, the Bikini Atoll atom-bomb tests, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep. On paper, it looks to be a typical avant-garde hootenanny, decipherable only to initiates. But it is a major work, a sneaky sort of tragic masterpiece, whose sounds and images haunt the mind for days. I saw it on the first icy, Siberian night of the Berlin winter, and I found myself consumed by a mounting sense of dread, such as one experiences during only the most intense evenings of theatre. Perhaps the most unnerving thing about "Three Tales"—is there a faint echo of Poe in the title?—is that Reich seems to be mourning a catastrophe that has not yet taken place. It is as if a superior, sensitive robot mind were looking to the time when the human race begins to be obliterated by machines.
"Three Tales" has received immediate worldwide attention—there have been productions in New York, Paris, London, Vienna, and elsewhere—because Reich is the most original musical thinker of our time. Minimalism in its classic form was essentially his invention, but for him it was only a beginning. In the past decade and more, Reich has been developing ideas about how speech generates melody and rhythm, and he has built up a series of works—"Different Trains," "The Cave," and now "Three Tales"—from musically suggestive fragments of recorded voices. The technique resembles Janácek's assimilation of ordinary Czech conversation in operas such as "Jenufa" and "The Cunning Little Vixen"; in Reich, as in Janácek, speech-melody creates an extraordinary transparency, so that whatever voice or mood or psychology is under examination hovers right in front of you. "Different Trains" is Reich's Holocaust piece, and, in its infinitely mournful montage of survivors' voices, string-quartet figures, and the sounds of trains, it says as much in thirty-five minutes as "Sophie's Choice" does in four hours.
In "Three Tales," as in many previous pieces, Reich has worked in close collaboration with the video artist Beryl Korot, his wife and creative partner. There is no staging as such, though from time to time the singers move ritualistically from one position to another. The action is in the images, which start, stop, slow down, and repeat in unpredictable rhythms. The Hindenburg burns and crashes so many times that it becomes an abstraction of fire, with all the shock of the image bled away. The episode about Bikini Atoll is concerned less with the atomic explosion than with the evacuation of King Judah's people from the island: the procession of their livestock looks like the one to Noah's Ark. Several leitmotivs move through all three sections: the low hum of the Hindenburg's engines becomes the roar of a B-29 bomber named Dave's Dream, and the ominous drone recurs in the final section, as Reich and Korot present fragments of interviews with an array of scientific experts, some of whom are straight-facedly discussing the possibility of a superhuman race of clones.
The music of "Three Tales" works on the ears in an almost subliminal way. On first encounter, it seems static and didactic: this was my reaction on hearing a preliminary version of the Hindenburg section, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 1998. I did not realize how Reich's harmony, with its ever-changing masses of suspended tones, would escalate tension over the hour-long span. These fraught and unresolved chords are agents of dramatic irony, foreshadowing, like Verdi's or Wagner's chords of fate, a bad end; they give a doomy ring to the overconfident pronouncements of Reich's "characters," who include a pompous newsreel announcer extolling the Hindenburg, a United States Army spokesman assuring us that atomic destruction will shortly be turned to "the benefit of all mankind," and a "cybernetics professor" named Kevin Warwick, who says, "The human body is extremely limited. I would love to upgrade myself."
The "Three Tales" company—consisting of the members of the Ensemble Modern and the singers of Synergy Vocals, all under the direction of Bradley Lubman—performed like a flawless machine. There was, perhaps, a certain paradox in this feast of precision: even as the composer casts doubt on technology, he avails himself of the latest advances. But Reich's high-tech manipulations are always rooted in the singsong cadences of human voices, so that the entire work moves with the unpredictable energy of a living thing. What is more, "Three Tales," for all its unemotive sleekness, emerges as a surprisingly fervent morality play, pointing a minatory finger not so much at technology itself as at the Faustian hubris that drives it forward. Some of the scientists interviewed in the "Dolly" section do their best to act the part of Mephistophelian villains, their voices dripping with pitiless hauteur. Reich and Korot appear to amuse themselves by replicating these august thinkers' faces on dozens of screens, subjecting their voices to audio surgery, and, on occasion, sending them into a slowed-down, slurry trance, so that they sound like Hal in "2001."
But this is not a farce. Right at the end, there is a chilling little duet for humanity and technology, as Cynthia Breazeal, of M.I.T., converses with a sweet-faced, dulcet-voiced robot named Kismet. "Maybe you'll play with your yellow toy?" she coos, as if talking to a toddler. Kismet shoots her a cool, withering look. Curtain.