The Royal Opera – 1984: Lorin Maazel’s Opera

1984 – Opera in two acts; Libretto by J.D. McClatchy and Thomas Meehan after George Orwell’s novel, 1984

Winston Smith – Simon Keenlyside
Julia – Nancy Gustafson
O’Brien – Richard Margison
Gym Instructress/Drunken Woman – Diana Damrau
Syme – Lawrence Brownlee
Parsons – Jeremy White
Charrington – Graeme Danby
Prole Woman – Mary Lloyd-Davies
Cafe Singer – Johnnie Fiori
Pub Quartet – The Demon Barbers

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Lorin Maazel

Robert Lepage – Director
Carl Fillion – Set
Yasmina Giguère – Costumes
Michel Beaulieu – Lighting
Sylvain Émard – Choreography

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 May, 2005
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Omens were not good from the start. That Lorin Maazel, a conductor whose technical prowess is internationally recognised but whose interpretative sensibility often seems to have been lost along the way, should make his return to Covent Garden after 27 years with an opera of his own was more than a trifle suspect: that he has met a good deal of the financial outlay himself matters little in the public-subsidy scheme of things; after all, there was more than a touch of vanity about Wagner’s conception of Bayreuth. But, love it or hate it, “Parsifal” is a work of whatever ‘genius’ entails: on the basis of “1984” and its intrinsic musical content, Maazel the opera composer is barely up and running.

Not that Maazel’s music alone is to blame for this dreary, uninspired evening. The libretto, a collaboration between literary eminence J. D. McClatchy (author of librettos for several recent American operas) and Thomas Meehan (whose track-record as a writer for musicals such as “Annie” and the revival of “The Producers” ought to have secured a certain liveliness of style) is superficial and simplistic as a treatment of George Orwell’s novel; conveying little of the cultural context that should not be difficult to evoke from a present-day perspective. Thus Winston Smith has little more resonance than an office-worker bored of his day-job, with Julia a distraction from the drudgery of an existence whose inhumanity is stylised to the point where it ceases to be felt. Other characters – section-leader and government agent O’Brien, antique-shop owner and informer Charrington, colleagues Parsons and double-speak wizard Syme – become little more than ciphers in a fable less of disillusion than of disingenuousness.

Maazel fails to compensate with vocal writing that is adequate but rarely, if ever inspired. A bland parlando is the order of the day – conveying the meaning of the text (audible, even without referring to surtitles) efficiently but with little finesse, and with a tendency to histrionic declamation when the emotional going gets tough. The recourse to speech as an expressive device is notably unsuccessful – but then, this has also been a failing of far finer opera composers than Maazel is ever likely to be. On theorchestral front, he is on surer ground – yet while there is little to object to in the deployment of a largish orchestra, in its balance internally or with the voices, it would be idle to pretend that Maazel’s writing is individual or inspired. So too the actual material – which plods along amorphously, permeatedwith echoes of earlier composers. As was once remarked in a rather different context, it is not the allusions themselves that are reprehensible – rather the failure to put them to any productive use.

Thus much of the interest centres on the staging by Robert Lepage and the mainly French-Canadian team. Again, however, there was little sense of commitment beyond carrying out a job to a professional and dependable standard. Carl Fillion’s set is a circular construction, revolving and opening out at varying angles so as to ensure relative continuity between scenes, that reminds one of an expensive-looking update of a David Poutney-era production at English National Opera – abetted by Yasmina Giguère’s utilitarian costumes and Michel Beaulieu’s vivid if unsubtle lighting. The contrast between living on the inside and outside is pointedly made, but ‘Room 101’ itself – not to mention the SAS-like parachuting-in of militia – has unmistakable overtones of the film “Brazil”, while the flashing lights of the torture scene suggests nothing more sophisticated than “The Ipcress File” from four decades ago. The use of video images, forcefully if crudely projected, is itself of a piece with the mise en scène as a whole.

Much the best aspect of the production is the singing. Simon Keenlyside strives manfully to inject real human vitality into the wan ‘hero’ that is Winston, making him identifiable if not overly empathetic as such. Nancy Gustafson is almost equally persuasive as Julia, though the evidently two-dimensional ‘female interest’ here is a long way from the vulnerable freedom fighter as found in Orwell’s novel. Richard Margison has a hard time drawing menace out of O’Brien’s bovine vocal lines, but acquits himself ably, and Graeme Danby incisively puts across the two sides of Charrington. Lawrence Brownlee’s double-speak number, what might be termed a ‘Bernstein patter song’, is virtuosic if tiring in its delivery – as is Diana Damrau’s Gym Instructress, itself akin to the aggressive rendering of a “Carry On” routine.

Worse still is the solo for the Prole Woman after the lovers’ Mancinian night of passion – well sung by Mary Lloyd-Davies but, really, Lionel Bart must have scrapped dozens of better numbers than this.

There are characterful turns from Johnnie Fiori as the Cafe Singer, and The Demon Barbers as the Pub Quartet, while Jeremy Irons declaims the stentorian ‘telescreen voice’ like a transatlantic Mr Kipling. The Royal Opera Chorus makes the most of its sub-Orffian ‘chorus of hate’ at the start – and, in response to Maazel’s urgings from the podium, the ROH Orchestra plays with no mean conviction, bringing a commendable stillness to Winston’s ‘Big Brother’ eulogy at the close, where perhaps a quirk of double-speak has conspired to remove Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony from out of copyright?

This, however, is the real tragedy: that a novel with the enduring power and human pathos of “1984” should first have been emasculated by the librettists then neutered by the composer, so robbing it of the means to evoke its era and project a continued relevance in our own time. Something Maazel would do well to ponder should he be contemplating any further texts ‘ripe’ for operatic treatment.

  • The performance reviewed above took place on 6 May; the first night was on 3 May
  • Remaining performances: May 11, 14, 16 & 19 at 7 o’clock
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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