Since Antonio Pappano took over as music director at Covent Garden, the opera house has seen a high-profile world premiere every year. First it was Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice, an over-long, overblown attempt to adapt a complicated novel which did not exactly suit itself to an operatic treatment. Then came Thomas Adès’ The Tempest, superior by far but still a rather disappointing version of Shakespeare’s play about music.
So what of Lorin Maazel’s 1984, the Royal Opera’s latest offering? Well, rather like the other two operatic settings of literary classics we have seen in the last two years, Maazel has simply failed to live up to, let alone surpass, Orwell’s novel in his first opera. From the sorry excuse for an opening chorus – said ensemble whispering the word “hate” without musical accompaniment – to the nondescript closing scene, the composer (who was also conducting) disappoints.
It was far from being a total disaster, one must admit, though the length of Act 1 was unforgivable – an hour and three quarters which could have been usefully split into two acts. Despite this duration, the story in the first act seemed particularly contracted, with very bitty scenes most of the time. However, the love duet (of sorts) was a highly effective Puccinian encounter between the main protagonists Winston and Julia. Also impressive was the sequence leading up to the Room 101 scene in Act 2, but the emotional punch of the score here was dissipated in the remaining scenes, and the final meeting of Julia and Winston was strangely unengaging.
Elsewhere, the score was rather pretentious, not only in the exceedingly boring (and overlong) opening scene but also in the mindless employment of Diana Damrau’s (excellent) coloratura as the Gym Mistress. The spectacular but monotonous sets by Carl Fillion and Robert Lepage’s occasionally inspired but largely passive direction may also be to blame. The opera’s biggest problem is that it is not emotionally engaging, not slightly scary.
Big Brother was more a bore than a bully. Perhaps in enacting the events in Orwell’s novel the opera could only make them seem more absurd than sinister.
However, the Royal Opera had at Maazel’s disposal a truly magnificent cast, and in Simon Keenlyside’s Winston, a typically saving light. Does he ever give a bad performance? He is today’s Domingo figure, a “complete” performer: singer and actor in equal measure. Throughout, his burnished baritone filled Maazel’s vacuous score with as much tension and excitement as it could possibly hold. Where the opera succeeded in generating excitement or emotion, the reason was usually Keenlyside’s presence. He is worth the extremely cheap price of admission (top price of £50, plenty of seats left) alone, and all fans should definitely experience his performance of Winston’s torture.
As Julia, his short-lived girlfriend, Nancy Gustafson sang valiantly through Maazel’s relentless score. She was Keenlyside’s equal as actor, though she doesn’t have that easy projection which marks out his performances as special. Nor could we have understood all her words were it not for the Royal Opera’s excellent decision to have surtitles even in English-language performances. Gustafson was nearly always moving, however, and it was a brave stab at a difficult role.
The rest of the cast was equally impressive. Diana Damrau’s take on the double role of Gym Instructress/Drunken Woman was excellent though the part is too small for her talents, and Richard Margison was wonderful as O’Brien. Clear articulation of the words and a beautiful timbre helped him to stamp his mark on the role, and he should be excellent as Riccardo in this autumn’s revival of the recent Un Ballo In Maschera.
Laurence Brownlee also shone as Syme, and Jeremy White had a return to form as Parsons. Jeremy Irons recorded the voice of Big Brother with some authority, though his accent was a peculiar hybrid of American, Irish and Oxford English. The orchestra played with panache under the composer, but the chorus looked and sounded confused as to their role in this strange work.
A curiosity worth witnessing, but far from a triumph.