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Les Doublepluspasheureux

Covent Garden
05/03/2005 -  and 6, 11, 14, 16, 19 May 2005
Lorin Maazel: 1984
Simon Keenlyside (Winston Smith), Nancy Gustafson (Julia), Richard Margison (O'Brian), 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 Demon Barbers (Pub Quartet)

Lorin Maazel (conductor), Robert Lepage (director)

Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Lorin Maazel's new opera 1984 is a new departure for the Royal Opera: the production is funded by Maazel's own company, and in theory it is meant to be available for commercial exploitation afterwards. A slightly synthetic row has arisen about Covent Garden putting on a vanity production, but 1984 turns out to be a plausible commercial work, at least in the sense that it is quite a lot like a number of commercial musicals of the gloomy persuasion. It has a magnificent set and a lot of operatic gestures to give it class, it is full of tunes and quoted or pastiche popular music, and it also includes a view of London, or working-class Londoners, that belongs in My Fair Lady or Mary Poppins. Ideal for the tourists.

For those who had lowered their expectations in the light of A Streetcar Named Desire by André Previn, Maazel's contemporary and fellow former Wunderkind, 1984 might well have been a pleasant surprise. The book, by poet and opera librettist J.D McClatchy and old Broadway hand Thomas Meehan, is well made and gets both action and key (familiar) themes over with an intense focus in the language and little fat. There is plenty of room for the music to perform the drama, in contrast to Streetcar, where the drama was stuck in the untouchable text of the play, or to Sophie's Choice, where Nicholas Maw wrote his own libretto and lacked the experience to shape it theatrically as well as musically. Maazel's music itself might charitably be described as after Massenet with aspirations to the Weill of Berlin: it is definitely theatre music, but it depends far too much on the theatrical production to deliver its meaning. There is a lot of speech, even at the beginning, to bathetically anti-dramatic effect, and the singers at times have to add spoken emphasis to sung text to make sense of it. There are striking orchestral effects, notably the brutal melodramas that accompanies the state's horrific actions, but there are also misjudged moments, for example the inconsequential opening of the second act, which uses strange tessituras of baritone instruments without achieving the presumably intended premonitory or discomfiting effect.

The first act goes on for far too long at almost two hours, perhaps because Maazel aimed for an extended musical arc, although on first listening there isn't an obvious one. But the finale, when Winston and Julia in their retreat over the shop listen to the old woman singing (Mary Lloyd-Davies, very touching) and are then violently arrested by the Thought Police abseiling from above, is breathtaking. The much shorter second act, which consists of an ensemble scene outside Room 101 in which various character from the first act dissolve from powerlessness, Winston's agony and a very brief coda in which he meets Julia again before being left alone to declare his love for Big Brother, works much better, although its main musical impact on one listener was to recall similar but more memorable themes from the Star Wars movies.

But the power of the second act depends almost exclusively on the performance of Simon Keenlyside as Winston. Keenlyside is a supremely physical singer, and his depiction of Winston's pain and humiliation as he was held up to the auditorium in three sides of a padded cube was unbearable to watch and impossible to look away from. It could be argued that the music did no harm to the drama here, but it will be interesting to see if another baritone can hold the audience's attention in the same way. Keenlyside's main shortcoming in the role is that he is touchingly vulnerable but does not have the pathos suggested by Winston's "varicose veins and five false teeth", a line that could usefully have been changed in the libretto. He is definitely not the smoldering weed, reminiscent of George Orwell, of the novel.

The rest of the cast were well chosen and dramatically impressive. Nancy Gustafson was a super-model Julia, perhaps gorgeous as seen through Winston's eyes. Richard Margison's O'Brien was out of a comic strip, moon-faced and opaquely sinister, a smooth Heldentenor thug. Diana Damrau may by the only coloratura soprano who can do the splits. She was suitably scary as the Gym Instructress (though shouldn't that the "PT Instructress"?) and Brechtian as the drunken woman who propositions Winston and suggests that she might be his mother as they wait in the anteroom to Room 101. Lawrence Brownlee and Jeremy White were well characterized as Winston's dutiful colleagues, one eager, one stolidly loyal but both convicted of thought crime. Graeme Danby sang sweetly (and looked like the writer Alexander McCall Smith) as Charrington, the shop owner who shelters and betrays Winston and Julia.

HE Elsom



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