1984, Royal Opera House, London

Maazel's money beats the Orwellian machine to launch an opera triumph
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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.