Reino Unido

1984: Orwell’s dystopian vision hits opera stage

Anni Oskala

miércoles, 18 de mayo de 2005
London, viernes, 6 de mayo de 2005. The Royal Opera House. Lorin Maazel, 1984. J.D. McClatchy and Thomas Meehan, libretto. Robert Lepage, director. Carl Fillion, sets. Yasmina Giguère, costumes. Michel Beaulieu, lighting. Sylvain Émard, choreography. Simon Keenlyside (Winston Smith). Nancy Gustafson (Julia). Richard Margison (O’Brien). Diana Damrau (Gym Instructress / Drunken Woman). Lawrence Brownlee (Syme). Jeremy White (Parsons). Graeme Danby (Charrington). Mary Lloyd Davies (Prole Woman). Johnnie Fiori (Café singer). The Royal Opera Chorus. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Lorin Maazel, conductor.

Lorin Maazel’s new opera 1984 had been the talk of the season even prior to its premiere. The production is a unique collaboration between The Royal Opera and Maazel’s own company, Big Brother Productions. Maazel’s personal financial contribution is said to be in the vicinity of £400’000 (€ 600’000; $ 800,000). This all has raised the question why a top-class opera house should welcome the vanity project of a rich conductor, whose reputation as a composer is far from solid, over commissioning new works from poorer but promising opera composers – of whom there is no shortage – such as Thomas Adès in the previous season.

The opera, which has now received its premiere, has proved to be as unique as the manner of its production. The work is an adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, which presents a dystopian vision of a totalitarian state where an individual is under constant surveillance and denied all personal freedom. Against this background, Orwell depicts the doomed love story of Winston Smith and Julia, who attempt to disobey the system, to no avail.

The opera libretto was coauthored by a rather incongruent pair: Thomas Meehan, best known for his award-winning scripts for Broadway musicals such as Annie, Hairspray and The Producers, and J.D. McClatchy, poet and Professor of English at Yale University, who has previously written four other opera libretti. The combined effort of these two men has produced an entertaining yet unbalanced libretto, which is by no means lacking in rhymes. In terms of the plot, the characters of Winston and Julia were poorly delienated and their love story was rushed into and left vacuous, while the space allotted to e.g. the ill-defined opening ‘Hate chorus’ and many supporting characters, was disproportionate. There was also clear imbalance in terms of proportion between the acts – the first ran nearly two hours, the second act only some 45 minutes.

Rather than filling in the gaps of the spoken text, Maazel’s score was equally patchy and offered little insight into the characters’ inner turmoil. Despite his mastery of orchestral colour and textures, as to be expected from an experienced conductor, as a composer Maazel appears to be still largely in search for his own musical idiom, borrowing ideas rather than creating his own style. The score of 1984 is an intricate web of pastiche and orchestral sound effects; Maazel’s own dormant style keeping most of the time cover somewhere in the mélange of Puccini, Berg, Bernstein, Sondheim, and everything in between. The inconsistency of the musical style is wearing, and the sudden, inelegant switches in and out of the pastiche Broadway mode are especially distracting from the drama. In the more freely-composed vocal passages, Maazel’s little stock-in-trade appeared to be the three-fold repetition of textual fragments or individual words, which was employed to the point of annoyance for no apparent musical or dramatic benefit.


The presence of the above features is a shame indeed, for the opera contained several powerful sequences (or seeds of such), the dramatic force of which was thus diminished. Among the highlights of Act I were the crowd scene in the Victory Square, and the final scene in which Winston and Julia were captured. Act II was much tighter overall. It culminated in Winston’s torture scene, ultimately leading to the infamous room 101, where one is faced with one’s greatest fears – rats in Winston’s case.

The staging by the renowned Canadian director Robert Lepage was a crucial ingredient in the drama in this scene as throughout the opera. To convey the intimate pain of Winston’s brainwashing torture, subtle and effective use was made of projected close-up shots of his tormented face. The unbearably small, padded cell, on which silhouettes of moving rats were projected, illustrated simply and effectively the psychological tension of the dreaded room 101. In general, throughout the opera, Carl Fillion’s set, with the Big Brother’s haunting image projected on the omnipresent telescreens, transformed itself to the varying needs of the drama, its transparency reinforcing a sense of omniscient control.

Much of the opera’s impact was ultimately down to the stellar cast. Simon Keenlyside’s Winston Smith was masterly, albeit that he is much too handsome to fit Orwell’s description – maintained in the libretto – of an ageing man with varicose veins and five false teeth. Throughout the opera, Keenlyside succeeded in bringing weight and life even into the most banal melodic spans, textual rhymes or empty repetitions. Nancy Gustafson made the most of Julia’s part, her voice and acting imparting a sense of heartfelt sincerity. Richard Margison’s O’Brien achieved a chilling transformation from an assumed ally to a menacing traitor with the little, unfocused material he was given to work with. Of the cameos, particularly impressive were Lawrence Brownlee’s patter-song and the vocal and physical agility of Diana Damrau’s Gym Instructress. Maazel himself conducted confidently and the orchestra and the chorus adapted themselves admirably to the requirements of the uneven score.

All in all, Covent Garden’s 1984 is a truly unique creation by Maazel and a team of experts. The music is unlikely to stand up on its own without the visual ‘hearing aid’ and dramatic support, but taken as a whole, the production certainly merits applause as an audio-visual experience that does not leave a listener untouched – even if the sentiments aroused range from utter raptness to bewilderment or exasperation.


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