« Trio Levinson at the Embassy of Hungary | Main | Pink Martini shakes it up; Sophie gets her debut »

Opera week at our house

September 29, 2006

This has been opera week at our house, apparently -- we took in the Washington National Opera's current offerings of Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" and  Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" on Monday, and the new production of Nicholas Maw's "Sophie's Choice" on Wednesday.

A lot to love in the first two, but I'm sad to say that "Sophie" was a major disappointment. I'd been really looking forward to it; my preview of it in the Post last week had focused on whether the extensive nip and tuck on the original production would tighten up its various sags.

sophie_set.jpgUnfortunately, it didn't.  It's shorter, sure.  And the music's engaging, the singing is powerful, the acting is fine.  But the story has been transplanted clumsily to the stage, and in more than three hours it never got up much steam. The wrenching, implacable buildup of tension in Styron's novel (and Alan Pakula's 1982 film adaptation) was nowhere to be found, Sophie's own fascinating moral contradictions were diluted into a bland porridge of victimization, and the punch-in-the-gut climax felt more like a gentle pat. The hideously ugly rather  unattractive set didn't help matters, either; virtually all the action takes place outside of what looks like a gas station restroom, complete with yellow eezy-klene tiles and a banner that, for three hours, helpfully reminded us slow thinkers what year we were in.

Maw has been widely praised for writing his own libretto for this opera -- but it looks like that was really his undoing.  He essentially just stitched together sections of Styron's dialogue, with no hard thinking about how to make it work onstage -- and that's exactly how it came across. Note to would-be dramaturges:  Dramatic writing is a whole lot harder than it looks.

Kudos anyway to Maw for a fine score, and to Angelika Kirchschlager, the brilliant mezzo who plays Sophie, and to conductor Marin Alsop, who (in her WNO debut) realized Maw's score with exceptional clarity and intelligence. (For a more articulate and complete assessment, see Tim Page's review of the premiere.)

bluebeard.jpg"Duke Bluebeard's Castle," which we saw on Monday, was a dark and beautiful gem, completely riveting despite the breathtakingly static action, in which two characters barely traverse the set. 

Baritone Samuel Ramey and mezzo Denyce Graves were stunning, as you'd expect from such majesties, and William Friedkin's staging was imaginative, vivid, and altogether satisfying. I had only heard a recording of this work, which never really grabbed me and has been gathering dust.  But this production was ear-opening, and it may be time to revisit that sadly-ignored disk.

The other work on Monday's program was Giacomo Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi," a one-act romp that was the frothy dessert to the heavy meat of "Bluebeard."  The cast was pleasant if unremarkable, but there were seriously nifty performances by Ramey (returning to perform the title role with crazy-like-a-fox wit)  and the gifted young soprano Amanda Squitieri, who turned in a very pretty account of the opera's show-stopping aria, "O mio babbino caro," that won her a prolonged ovation.

Posted on Friday, September 29, 2006 at 03:24PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.