Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Simon Sez: Maazel's "1984" on DVD

"Maazel has perpetuated a fraud" . . . "a slick perversion of Orwell by the super rich Maazel who bought his way to [Covent Garden]" . . . "Keenlyside (Smith) and Gustavson (Julia) fail to relate" . . . "Maazel sucks the life and irony out of Orwell" . . . "Why this tripe has been given airtime at Covent Garden . . . is a mystery"

These and more like it were all that I read following the premiere of Maazel's opera. It seemed as though every critic attempted to outdo the next in finding witty words to tell us what a piece of crap this "non-opera" was. Still, with its brilliant cast, the direction of theatrical wizard Robert Lepage, and one of my favorite stories (that I and a friend/fellow student attempted to musicalize at theatre school) I've been waiting - admittedly anxiously - to see what inspired all this venomous writing. To my surprise I found a profoundly moving, if seriously flawed work of musical theatre populated by a cast who seemed to believe in the project and conducted with near abandon, passionately by its creator.

Maazel's score certainly has its low points: an annoying tendency to repeat the final word or syllable of a sentence or phrase wears thin and has little dramatic or musical purpose; a rambling of styles that recall (instantly) Bernstein, Sondheim, Weill, Barber and most of all, Britten (not in and of itself a bad thing); some less-than-inspired music when the words could have been effectively declaimed/spoken (especially since there is spoken dialogue present anyway) and other things that seem obvious or in need of rethinking. Nonetheless, these flaws (at least in my opinion) fall by the wayside when placed alongside what DOES work, and of that there is plenty.

Simon Keenlyside's Winston Smith ranks among the most intense, perfect (and insanely physical) creations of any character I've witnessed created for the stage. The dramatic arc as Winston - beginning as frightened, angry and hopeless drone, to thinker, dreamer, lover - before being utterly destroyed and thus, assimilated properly into Orwell's hell on earth, is as devastating as anything I've witnessed. Musically, this may not be Wozzeck (what possibly could be?) but Keenlyside makes him, perhaps, Wozzeck's brother . . . or worse, his son. Maazel seems to play with this theme and one cannot help (particularly in the third act) feel a strong bond between Berg's and Maazel's antiheroes as they're emotionally stretched beyond the breaking point. Indeed, throughout Keenlyside is nothing short of magnificent and, as difficult to watch as his torture scene in the Examination Room is, it barely prepares us for the horrors yet to follow in Room 101. Simon gives us EVERYTHING in Winston, and by the third act I forgot I was watching an opera - or indeed any sort of theatrical production at all - as he cries, sputters, vomits water, turns his contorted torso at wildly impossible angles during his break down. But it isn't all just "acrobatic theatrics" - Maazel gives Winston a big aria here, and composer and singer each know how to put this across in a way that had me in chills and tears. (Watching from my sofa, I managed to squeeze a king sized pillow into something nearly asprin sized.)

In similar fashion, Nancy Gustavson gives it her all in a thoroughly believable portrayal of Julia. The change in her character from cold, feelingless drone to the woman who leads Winston to a realm of love and hope, almost made me believe the story could turn another way. Even the filmed image of her dancing in a golden field projected as Winston dreams (following his torture) makes you believe in their despairing hope.

The love scene - interrupted by another chilling scene with Richard Margison's sensational O'Brien - returns and extends finding the couple taking flight to near ecstasy before their true hell begins. Here, Maazel gives them (and us) music that soars passionately - sweeps elegantly and rises away from the din of this oppressive world of Big Brother. It's really rather good music here!

Diana Damrau does double duty (are there enough D's in that phrase?) as a charmless, near robotic Gym Instructor, then returning in the final act as a rotten-toothed drunken hag of a whore who elicits both pity and disgust, as in remarkably clear English she sings at the top of her range, trilling through coloratura flights of fancy that feel remarkably right.

Lawrence Brownlee was a pleasant surprise as Syme, his elegant, gorgeously toned tenor also pushed to the top of his range - but always free and ringing - his voice lighting up the stage. The duplicity of his words in praise of "newspeak" and that sunny voice, one of the true highlights of the first act.

Richard Margison was another surprise. I don't always care for this singer in the big romantic leading roles - he just sounds and looks uncomfortable and unconvincing so often, but here he is lithe, sinister, duplicitous and sings with abandon and elegance all at once. It is a terrific performance.

There are moments like the anthem-like Hymn to Oceania (a hilariously touching sendup of nearly the modern national anthem), the blues numbers, the children's music, the Barbershop-type jazz men's quartet, all were moments the critics said dragged this down to "Broadway Musical" levels, but I felt were not only well crafted, but correct and persuasive in each of the spots where they occur.

I know no one wants to believe in an ovation as an indicator of a work's worth, but the audience goes crazy at the conclusion. Perhaps they were just a bunch of proles, like me, easily entertained and worthy of being summarily dismissed by our wise critics who despised the thing.
Robert Lepage continually amazes me in everything he puts his hands on and this is no exception. He's already well on his way to becoming one of the most original thinking designers/directors in 21st century opera production. Watching his incredibly detailed direction - and these magnificent sets, only continues to whet my appetite for what he will bring to the Met's new Ring Cycle. I can hardly wait!

So, while admittedly "imperfect," Maestro Maazel's opera entertained me, moved me, brought out the tears and chills and made me feel the three hours were worth the investment. I'd call that a success and I look forward to watching this again.

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