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Remember The Aspern Papers, Savage Land, The Dream of Valentino, or Les Liaisons Dangereuses? Neither does anyone else. All those recent operas were brilliant productions and had stellar casts and expertly crafted scores. But their composers made the fatal error of aping 19th-century Romantic opera without honoring that genre’s commitment to the natural rise and fall of spoken language and its need for decent tunes. The result: works stylistically at war with themselves that garner respect on paper but achieve instant anonymity onstage.

That’s why, to mainstream opera audiences, “new” is a dicey word. Chances are very good that the warmed-over Janácÿek, ersatz Britten, and Puccini sans melody that American companies—including Washington National Opera—have trooped through our opera houses over the last quarter-century will be musically forgettable and stylistically muddled, destined to be remembered, if at all, for their plot, lead singers, or production concepts.

And now we have the American premiere of Sophie’s Choice, in a WNO co-production with the Vienna Volksoper and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The score, by veteran British composer Nicholas Maw, to his own libretto based on William Styron’s novel, is a wonderful piece of orchestral writing. The ache of loss in the strings during the narrator’s reflective interludes, the way a seductively rhythmic dance blossoms from an onstage Victrola until it possesses the entire orchestra in the Coney Island scene, the snatches of plain-spoken American folk melody that fleetingly appear to underscore verses by Emily Dickinson, all show Maw to be a superb orchestrator.

How fortunate that Marin Alsop —an increasingly in-demand Bernstein protégé who takes the helm as the Baltimore Symphony’s new music director this season—has been engaged to conduct Sophie. Her work is in complete sympathy with music that alludes to Benjamin Britten and the American Romantics and shuttles between moods of fraught stillness and seething anxiety. Under Alsop’s baton, the orchestra plays fearlessly, with extrovert brilliance and expansive tone. The composer (who took a bow at the opening) had to have been pleased with the rich palette of color Alsop and her players draw from his score, and with the emotional commitment of their music-making.

Few stories, of course, warrant the kind of emotional commitment that Sophie’s Choice does. As in the novel and film, the opera explores the triangular friendship between Catholic Auschwitz survivor Sophie Zawistowska, her charming but psychotic Jewish boyfriend Nathan Landau, and their Virginia-bred Brooklyn neighbor Stingo, coupling and feuding in a pair of low-rent apartments during the summer of 1947. The plot unfolds in a double flashback, shuttling between a present-day narration by the older Stingo recalling 1947, scenes from that summer, and scenes from Sophie’s revealed wartime past. Where Maw succeeds as a librettist is when he skillfully teases out key moments from Sophie’s pre-Brooklyn life to reveal not one defining choice—having to choose which of her two children would be sent to the gas chamber and which she’d get to keep—but a set of morally compromising choices that led her to the masochistic romance that would eventually consume her.

So much else about Maw’s libretto writing, however, compromises the drama. Leave aside the fact that words like “paranoid schizophrenic” simply refuse to sing—anyone setting this story is going to have to steer around some obstinately nonoperatic language. But Maw, in an ill-advised quest for fidelity to the novel, makes no apparent attempt to adapt the literary cadences of Styron’s phrases to the needs of lyrical expression. So (as with so many recent operas) we’re left with clunky, meandering vocal lines and the nagging question of why this story has to be sung at all if it is to be sung like this.

Given the nature of the vocal writing, it’s a double tribute to the WNO cast that they’re able to create such vivid, sensitively sung portrayals. The singers playing Sophie, Nathan, and Stingo performed their roles in the world premiere production at Covent Garden in 2002, and the seasoning shows. All three make their characters’ tormenting isolation and desperate need for connection palpable. Tenor Gordon Gietz is an ideally callow Stingo, his voice incisive but with enough honey in its tone to bring considerable sympathy to a part that could easily devolve into a whiney sidekick. If baritone Rod Gilfry looks too much the square-jawed country boy to convince entirely as Nathan, he brings a commanding voice to the role and is downright scary during his psychotic episodes. The stunning mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager—with her sensitively molded phrasing and a voice possessing both orchestra-cutting edge and a creamy finish—lives the role of Sophie with such hypnotic concentration and in-the-moment naturalness, it’s hard to turn your attention away from her. She is very much the heart of the production and a prime reason to see it. And that’s not to forget baritone Dale Duesing’s mournful and wonder-filled narrator, utterly moving and sung with unfailing elegance.

Those principals and the rest of the strong cast are woven into a superb, dramatically cogent ensemble by director Markus Bothe, and the set designed by Robert Schweer—a warning-light-yellow, tiled hallway (with a “Summer of ’47” postcard logo stenciled between its pair of multiuse doors) that floats in a sea of dimly lit Holocaust-victim photos—is sheer genius both as a visual metaphor and as a sharply focused space for the drama to unfold.

Still, when such an atonal opera as Wozzeck or such a minimalist one as Nixon in China offer more dramatically motivated melodic writing than the nostalgically tonal Sophie, then there’s a problem. Perhaps if Maw’s vocal writing were more expressive in the first place—or if singers and orchestra were allowed to express themselves at the same time instead of taking decorous turns to say the same thing—the decision to turn Sophie’s Choice into an opera might feel more emphatically justified. Predicting an opera’s future is a crapshoot. But based on a first encounter with Sophie, I wouldn’t be surprised if this new opera, too, were remembered more for its parts than its whole.CP