1984, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

In George Orwell's novel, one man takes on the system. The story behind the conductor Lorin Maazel's operatic version is similar: one musician takes on the opera world and bends it to his will: unable to get any theatre to stage 1984, Maazel set up his own company and made an offer that the Royal Opera apparently couldn't refuse.

The librettists, JD McClatchy and Thomas Meehan, have delivered a concise, pacy 1984 in which paranoia often looms larger than politics, just as it does in the novel. Robert Lepage's restless, unflinching production and the control of pace in Maazel's conducting, as much as in his composing, give the two and a half hours of action a focus and, at times, a grandeur that keeps the attention.

Yet, if you catch Radio 3's broadcast on 25 May, you may find the music is a mishmash of high and low points. For every sly allusion and delicate touch of orchestration, there is a blast of irony, trumpets to the fore, with all the subtlety of the low-tech torture machine that is the centrepiece of Carl Fillion's convincingly claustrophobic set for the second act.

The opera improves steadily after beginning in an extended but noisy stasis: the "hate session" keeps the chorus rooted to the spot, with isolated members rising to their feet to praise Big Brother in a trance-like ecstasy and the music working in parallel with its sound and fury strictly on the surface. Many of the choruses are too frantic for the singers to articulate words, and the scenes of London low-life are a Neverland of clichéd pub characters.

The best of the big moments is the arrival of a flying bomb, terrifying in its own right as a piece of staging, and taking on inevitable further resonance in the light of 9/11.

While the spacing of the opera's main climaxes is judicious, the solo writing has greater variety, and Maazel's scoring works best on an intimate scale. But, even here, melodic lines are forgettable and several roles depend on parody and do not establish character.

Yet Maazel can turn on the passion. The scenes between Winston and Julia move effectively from spiky mistrust to a genuine, but doomed, frankness.Simon Keenlyside embodies Winston's all-too-human mix of strength and weakness in a performance of expressive physical energy and vocal stamina. The pick of the cameos is Lawrence Brownlee's Syme, a virtuoso display from a voice of quite astonishing range.

To 19 May (020-7304 4000)