1984, Royal Opera House, London <br/> Ulysses Comes Home, Planet Ice, Birmingham <br/> The Knot Garden, Linbury Studio, London

Big Brother isn't watching - he's seen enough
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

'This is from the Ministry of Truth" murmured the tall man as he handed me a neatly folded slip of paper before the premiere of Lorin Maazel's 1984. Uncomfortably, I realised he had been watching me for several minutes. Was it part of the show? Was he in the employ of Big Brother Productions? No. To summarise what was written within, his beef was that the Royal Opera House was legitimising a vanity project.

'This is from the Ministry of Truth" murmured the tall man as he handed me a neatly folded slip of paper before the premiere of Lorin Maazel's 1984. Uncomfortably, I realised he had been watching me for several minutes. Was it part of the show? Was he in the employ of Big Brother Productions? No. To summarise what was written within, his beef was that the Royal Opera House was legitimising a vanity project.

Maazel's self-financed operatic debut is reported to have cost more than £400,000. But if Motorhead can hire Covent Garden, why bar a veteran conductor with a blank cheque? Will one sunset folly cause a stampede? Can we now look forward to the premieres of Barenboim's Brave New World and Mackerras's The Unbearable Lightness of Being? I doubt it. Excepting a few arch references to Strauss in the coloratura calisthenics of the Gym Instructress, Maazel's 1984 has as little to do with opera past, present, or future as "Ace of Spades". Unconscionably sluggish and devoid of political bite, it is instead a musical comedy.

The Hate Chorus - a unique synthesis of the worst aspects of Carl Orff and Stephen Sondheim - sets the tone for an evening of unprecedented musical and dramatic arrhythmia. Maazel's word-setting is both histrionic and vacuous; frequently employing odd repetitions, repetitions, repetitions, as though playing for time, time, time, and occasionally stops altogether. Many lines are spoken over lacklustre sound-effects. Private and public utterances are identical in pitch, style and emphasis. Contempt, trust, desire, fear, and hope are blurred by apparently random orchestration. Only the Prole Songs have structure. Maazel's slick jazz, folk, nursery rhyme and barbershop pastiches leaven the intestinal brass and dog-whistle harmonics that pass for atmosphere, but not the execrable love duet - yes, love duet - "A night of one star".

Hear that whirring sound? It's George Orwell spinning in his grave. For tempting as it is to assume that Maazel used a versificator - the Minitrue machine that generates Prole Songs from a stockpile of clichés - to compose 1984, librettists Thomas Meehan (co-writer of The Producers) and J D McClatchy are equally culpable. Not content with ignoring most of Orwell's best lines, Meehan and McClatchy have castrated his political allegory, unbalanced his narrative, redesigned his characters, made Airstrip One a synonym for London, and created a false hierarchy for the Ministry of Truth. Julia (Nancy Gustafson), described as "a rebel from the waist down" in the novel, is here a mawkish romantic, O'Brien (Richard Margison) a snippy sociopath, Syme (Lawrence Brownlee), a buffo tenor with a Newspeak patter song in rhyming couplets, and one of two characters to become a comedy turn. (The other is Diana Damrau's Gym Instructress.) Only Winston (Simon Keenlyside) and Parsons (Jeremy White) approximate Orwell's originals.

Though each member of the cast sings with formidable intensity, their performances cannot paper over the cracks in this crock of an opera. Take the politics and paranoia out of 1984 and what remains is a lurid potboiler that has little relevance to 20th-century totalitarianism. Guantanamo jumpsuits do not an allegory make.

Carl Fillion's versatile set, which uses a circular structure as panopticon and zoetrope, owes an equal debt to Metropolis and The City of Lost Children, but its impact is diluted by director Robert Lepage's lazy tendency to have the singers direct their numbers to the front like Broadway belters. Banal beyond description, hubristic beyond belief, bone-headed, brain-numbing and bathetic, 1984 is an unqualified disaster.

Another opera, another venue, another mysterious slip of paper; this time an immigration form to be filled out upon arrival in Ithaca. In the unlikely setting of Planet Ice in Birmingham's Chinese Quarter, Graham Vick's promenade production of Ulysses Comes Home with the Birmingham Opera Company achieved the contemporary resonance that 1984 so roundly failed to suggest. With a cast of nearly 100 actors and singers, an enchanting ensemble of plucked and bowed continuo, gut strings and cornetts, two lorries, a kebab van, some hair-raisingly sassy costumes, and a series of plastic storage boxes, Vick balanced the political and personal tensions in Monteverdi's greatest opera with humour, tenderness, showmanship, and a timely plea for understanding of what tighter border controls might mean for those who are shut out.

For those who like to keep their distance, Vick's productions should be approached with caution. Thankfully, we were not required to put bags over our heads this time. But in just under three hours of wandering around the disused ice rink, we were corralled behind wire fences, moved along by brusque customs officials, offered cigars, ballot papers, manifestos and baklava, and treated to a remarkably close view of human frailty's most vulnerable parts.

Seen and heard at barely arm's length, the depth of commitment that Vick elicits from his singers is evident. Listing every member of the company and Robert Howarth's excellent chamber orchestra would take more space than I have here, but special mention must go to Paul Nilon (Ulysses), Emma Selway (Penelope), Adrian Thompson (Eumaeus), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Fortune/Minerva), Owen Willetts (Human Frailty), Robert Winsdale Anderson (Time), Andee-Louise Hypolite (Juno), Timothy O'Brien's brilliant designs, and Christopher Cowell, whose eloquent translation made the story of Ulysses' return more immediate than ever. Birmingham has an incredible gift in this company. That its City Council supports Vick is something of which they can be justly proud.

In the normal course of events, decades may pass between productions of Sir Michael Tippett's The Knot Garden. Now, only months after Scottish Opera's clever production, along comes another from Music Theatre Wales. That the third London performance of MTW's touring production was full to capacity is testament to the pulling power of Turner Prize-nominated video artists Jane and Louise Wilson, whose beguiling films of Victor Pasmore's weather-worn Apollo Pavilion echo the changing moods of the libretto and score. With fine performances from Christopher Lemmings (Dov) and Lucy Schaufer (Thea), tight direction from Michael McCarthy, and a balanced realisation of Meirion Bowen's chamber orchestration under Michael Rafferty, MTW should be congratulated for their innovative approach to this difficult work.

'1984': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 19 May; 'The Knot Garden': The Anvil, Basingstoke (01256 844244), Tuesday, then touring

a.picard@independent.co.uk

Comments