Maazel, Lorin: 1984 (DVD) Decca 2008
Lorin Maazel: 1984 (DVD)
“…led by the magnificent Winston of Simon Keenlyside…” La Scena Musicale
“Simon Keenlyside’s performance must be one of the greatest ever at the Royal Opera” Classical.net
“Simon Keenlyside’s Winston has a warm, human stage presence…” Opera News
Conductor: Lorin Maazel
Winston Smith : Simon Keenlyside
Julia : Nancy Gustafson
O’Brien : Richard Margison
Gym Instructress/Drunken Woman : Diana Damrau
Syme : Lawrence Brownlee
Parsons : Jeremy White
Charrington : Graeme Danby
Prole Woman : Mary Lloyd-Davies
Cafe Singer : Johnnie Fiori
Pub Quartet : The Demon Barbers
Recorded voice of the telescreen : Jeremy Irons
The Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director, Renato Balsadonna) and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Concert Master, Peter Manning).
Extras include an exclusive 30-minute interview with Maazel
Recorded: Click here for details of the performance
Released: 12 May 2008 (UK)
Number of discs: 2
Label: Decca 0743289
The debut DVD release of Lorin Maazel’s new opera, based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel, one of the most famous novels of the 20th century. Premiered at Covent Garden in 2005, where it was conducted by the composer and filmed in High Definition. The producer was Robert Lepage, whose highly-praised, visually-stunning production is gripping and at times terrifying. This release is timed to coincide with the run of the same production at La Scala in May 2008.
Lorin Maazel’s gripping opera based on George Orwell’s literary masterpiece is now available on DVD, in a deluxe two-disc set from Decca. Robert Lepage’s acclaimed production, filmed in high-definition by Brian Large at the Royal Opera House, showcases the brilliant performances of a superb cast: Simon Keenlyside in his Olivier award-winning role at Winston Smith, Nancy Gustafson as Julia, Richard Margison as O’Brien, Diana Damrau as the Gym Instructress and Lawrence Brownlee as Syme.
The DVD includes subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian, and an exclusive 30-minute bonus feature with Maestro Maazel introducing the work.
Simon & Lorin Maazel
What the critics say
Rating: value for money $$$$
Rating: performance ****
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.
Bringing George Orwell’s telling story of totalitarian horror and cruelty to the stage is undoubtedly a herculean task, fraught with many pitfalls, but this pioneering project must be praised not only for its vision, but more so for execution.
J.D. McClatchy’s and Thomas Meehan’s libretto is a masterpiece in itself and Orwell’s brutal tale is narrated with a realism that strikes both fear and anger into one’s inner self. Robert Lepage’s stage direction penetrates into the very soul of the characters with unsparing intensity; the Examination Room sequence in Act 3 is by far the most revolting experience in the history of opera and you must be prepared to stomach some to stay with it till the end.
Maazel’s score is a mixture of the atonal and neo-romantic based on Wagner’s leitmotif style; a perfect musical package for the unfolding of this terrifying nightmare of a story which still goes on and on. The singing and acting by the main soloists is absolutely riveting, with Simon Keenlyside’s performance must be one of the greatest ever at the Royal Opera. He practically sings in every conceivable position, except head down, of course, and the physical exertions heaped upon him by Lepage verge on the inhuman.
1984 is a truly towering stage work that sweeps you off your feet and leaves you breathless and anguished. Superb sound and vision complete a memorable set of a modern operatic landmark that will be with us for many years to come.
Rating: Four star
Conductor Maazel was originally asked the the director of a Munich opera house to compose a new opera for him. Maazel reread Orwell’s book and felt it was a perfect choice from which to build an opera, but the director of the opera house suddenly died. Covent Garden later approached Maazel and he went to work on the story’s denunciation of a world in which the individual is enslaved to an idea and an absolute power – represented by Big Brother. He felt that since Orwell used a most realistic and objective approach, the narrative process would be most effective, with every scene unsettling the viewer.
The totalitarian nightmare is illustrated mainly thru the relationship of two “misfits” who are fighting Big Brother’s brainwashing – Winston Smith and Julia. Love is forbidden in the world of 1984, so we realize the pair’s saga is not going to come to a good end. The nature of the drama is bleak and unforgiving, and both Maazel’s often atonal music and the dark and oppressive stage settings support it. However, Maazel also had to come up with Oceana’s national anthem, national songs and hymns, and various pop music of Britain during the 1950s, when Big Brother came to power. These are of a much more tonal design, offering a relief – though disturbing – from the unemotional portion of the score.
The integration of the video screens with their constant propaganda from Big Brother with the onstage action is handled well. They often illustrate the sense of Newspeak – the official party language – in which party clerks go back and change past history to conform to Big Brother’s current propaganda. Oceana is constantly at war, and the enemy seems to change from day to day. Most foods are rationed and our first glimpse of Julia is as she leads a militant parade of the Anti-Sex League. Winston and Julia naively trust O’Brien, who pretends to be a fellow resister of Big Brother, but who is actually another spy rooting out those guilty of “thoughtcrime.”
Winston reveals early on that his greatest fear is rats (similar to Indiana Jones’ snakes), and it is interesting to see how the production handles Winston’s later torture scene when he is subjected to rats (they are projected images). After their “reeducation” in Room 101 Winston and Julia are restored to the totalitarian society to continue their tightly-controlled lives under Big Brother.
The transfer to DVD of the often low-key and dark sets is excellent and the DTS surround communicates the full impact of the soloists, chorus and orchestra. I had to sometimes raise the level in order to properly hear the singers, and much of the sense of the opera would have been lost had I not engaged the English subtitles to follow along. But I think that’s become a given for most of us no matter what the language, and has opened up the world of opera to millions of new ears worldwide.
William R Braun, Opera News, August 2009 , vol 74 , no.2
It’s not just the story of a decent soul worn down by an unyielding regime that brings Wozzeck to mind so often during Lorin Maazel’s operatic version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Maazel, like Berg, has divided his piece into three acts made up of short scenes, and the orchestration is Mahler-like in its conductor’s knowledge of what instruments can do. There are great, striding horn lines, Wagnerian clarinet groups and a textbook understanding of percussion. Maazel can write parodies of Viennese waltzes, ’20s jazz and pop songs with assurance. Like Berg, Maazel sometimes unifies an entire scene with one musical form. The visit Winston and Julia pay to O’Brien’s apartment doesn’t try to capture in the music the conflicting layers of desperate hope, deep suspicion and luxurious surroundings; rather, Maazel has cast it as a lop-sided gymnopédie.
But Berg, or John Adams, would have had it both ways. There’s no attempt to portray the fragile, jackstraws pile of emotions when Winston and Julia have their brief idyll, tenderly and not easily teaching themselves how to love someone. Instead, Maazel has given them a triumphant, swelling Euro-anthem. You could say that this is meant to be a big opera for big houses, but it isn’t nearly so engrossing as it could be. Maazel’s torture music, like everything else, is merely brutal rather than creepy. It’s a major misreading, deliberate or not, of what Orwell accomplished.
Robert Lepage’s production, filmed at Covent Garden, is like-minded. It’s relentlessly sleek, bright and efficient, to the point where we stop investing in it. Orwell is built on the sinister, the insinuating; Lepage is built on the conventional. During the most recent Memorial Day concert at the U.S. Capitol, a narrator informed the audience that the “war” in Iraq “began” earlier this decade, as if spontaneously. There’s nothing remotely as Orwellian in Lepage’s and Maazel’s 1984. Rather, it’s as if the Tony Awards decided to do a salute to totalitarianism. Orwell’s world — sepia-toned, dirty, of indeterminate age — could have provided great material for an opera about the dissolution of memory. Indeed, at the very end, Lepage has Winston alone on a balcony, gazing into space, while Maazel gives him an orchestral backing purged of dissonance and color, but we stopped caring sometime in the two hours of onslaught that preceded it.
On the other hand, perhaps an opera is a success if singers are able to transcend the material. Simon Keenlyside’s Winston has a warm, human stage presence that goes a long way toward filling in what the music and direction lack. Nancy Gustafson’s Julia, though the opera gives not a hint of how hyper-intelligent the Julia of Nineteen Eighty-Four is, offers an intriguing combination of tough and soft, plus a lovely top register. And Diana Damrau, perfectly cast as the untiring, robotic televised gym instructor, is as ever an operatic performer of historic gifts.