La Scena Musicale

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Maazel: 1984

Keenlyside, Gustafson, Margison, Damrau, Brownlee
Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Lorin Maazel
Decca DVD 074 3289 (2CD: 147 min)
$$$$ ****
Based on George Orwell's dystopian novel, conductor/composer Lorin Maazel’s operatic adaptation of 1984 attracted a great deal of attention when it premiered at Covent Garden in 2005, but unfortunately for Maazel it was mostly of the wrong kind. Although the singers were praised, the British press was hostile. The score was deemed banal and derivative; and there was much nasty snickering that Covent Garden had “sold out” by mounting a vanity project heavily subsidised by the wealthy composer. In 2007, performances in Valencia fell through due to severe flooding of the opera house, but a revival subsequently took place at La Scala in early 2008, again to mixed reviews. This DVD release captures the Covent Garden production.

Contemporary classical music, and opera is no exception, faces the challenge of balancing musical and compositional merit with accessibility to the public. In terms of box office, the Covent Garden performances were sold out and the La Scala revival was said to be profitable – not many works can claim to have achieved that. But upon careful listening, it must be said that some of the criticisms levelled at 1984 are not without foundation. Maazel's score lacks a single musical language – the piece is a patchwork of many different styles. He writes more gratefully for the voice than many modern day composers, but the vocal line tends to dominate at the expense of the orchestration, which isn't so complex or interesting. A more unfair criticism has to do with the straightforward adherence of the libretto to the book. It is felt in some circles that, given the recent UK responses to terrorism in London through mass surveillance, the composer and librettist should have updated the story to reflect this. In any case, if one were to consider this work as a sort of “cross-over opera” along the lines of a musical, 1984 works well – I find it gripping theatre. The sets by Carl Fillion, the costumes by Yasmina Gigeure and the direction by Canadian Robert Lepage are effective. The opera works well on the home screen, expertly executed by veteran Brian Large.

The singers, led by the magnificent Winston of Simon Keenlyside, are uniformly excellent. Keenlyside is well partnered by Nancy Gustafson’s Julia. As O'Brien, Richard Margison gets a rare chance to play the bad guy. Diana Damrau must have relished the chance of doing the split – not to mention her stratospheric high notes – as the Gym Instructor, and Lawrence Brownlee (Syme) also gets to show off his high register. Included in the release is a 27-minute introduction to the opera by Maazel, illustrating at the piano – he is not shy about showing off his singing voice either! On balance, this work is effective and provocative theatre and well worth experiencing.

- Joseph K. So

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