1984, Royal Opera House, London

Maazel's money beats the Orwellian machine to launch an opera triumph

In George Orwell's novel 1984, one man takes on the system and fails. The story behind Lorin Maazel's operatic version is like an update: one musician takes on the opera system and bends it to his will. Better known as a conductor, and unable to get any theatre to stage 1984, Maazel could afford to set up his own company, hire his own production team, and make an offer that the Royal Opera apparently couldn't refuse. Orwell's Winston Smith may be crushed, but the dollar talks.

How fair is that, when composers with no money and 10 times the experience can't get anywhere near Covent Garden? Pretty outrageous, but maybe no worse than the mysterious processes that selected the three other composers to be premiered there in recent years. As for the question they all, rich and poor alike, have to face - is the show any good? - it comes out rather well.

Whatever the merits of the music - and it has some - it was the consummate professionalism of the theatre experience that succeeded at the premiere. The librettists, J D McClatchy and Thomas Meehan, have delivered a concise, pacey 1984 in which paranoia often looms larger than politics, just as it does in the book for all Orwell's reputation as a prophet. Robert Lepage's restless, unflinching production and the control of pace in Maazel's conducting as much as his composing helped to give the two-and-a-half hours of action a focus and at times a grandeur that constantly riveted the attention.

Yet if you happen to catch Radio 3's broadcast later this month, you may well find that just listening is a frustrating experience. The music is a mish-mash of high and low points. For every sly allusion and delicate orchestral touch there is a blast of irony, trumpet to the fore, with all the subtlety of the low-tech torture machine that is the centrepiece of Carl Fillion's convincingly claustro-phobic set for Act Two.

The choruses tend to be too frantic for articulation. The melodic lines are forgettable and don't differentiate strongly between characters. The scenes of London low-life are almost embarrassingly unidiomatic. Yet when it matters, Maazel can turn on the passion, and the scenes between Winston and Julia move effectively from mistrust to a genuine - and of course doomed - frankness. The blending of tragic action and popular song is no less affecting for being rather calculated. Always the pacing is sure, the physical sound alive and vivid.

There is strong solo work. Simon Keenlyside embodies Winston's all-too-human mix of strength and weakness in a performance of great physical expression and vocal stamina. Nancy Gustafson, as Julia, and Richard Margison as the duplicitous O'Brien have moments when they shine and moments when they have to work hard. Pick of the cameos was Lawrence Brownlee's Syme, a virtuoso display from a voice of quite astonishing range.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy