Wagner Dream

Jonathan Harvey
Wagner Dream – Opera to a libretto by Jean-Claude Carrière [UK premiere]

Prakriti – Claire Booth
Mother – Hilary Summers
Ananda – Andrew Staples
Buddha – Roderick Williams
Vairochana – Simon Bailey
Old Brahmin – Richard Angas
Richard Wagner – Nicholas Le Prevost
Cosima Wagner – Ruth Lass
Carrie Pringle – Julia Innocenti
Dr Keppler – Richard Jackson
Betty / Vajrayogni – Sally Brooks

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Orpha Phelan – Director
Charlie Cridlan – Designer
Gilbert Nouno – IRCAM computer music designer
Franck Rossi – IRCAM sound engineer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 January, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra weekend devoted to the music of Jonathan Harvey reached its climax with the UK premiere of his most recent opera. Conceptually it brings together several of the composer’s abiding concerns – not least spiritual and imaginary worlds, together with an extensive electronic component.

Martyn Brabbins. Photograph: Sasha GusovWagner Dream finds the eponymous composer near the point of death and contemplating the sketch for his Buddhist-inspired opera Die Sieger (The Victors) which, conceived during the mid-1850s, had long been intended as his final project – albeit one even the composer, pushing the project ever further from the present, might not have expected to complete.

A project, then, to which Harvey would seem wholly attuned and, musically at least, the opera has numerous attractions. Yet the key dramatic focus – of Wagner confronting his inhibitions and seeing his life in claritas – fails to move or impress. Much of this failing is attributable to the libretto: whatever Jean-Claude Carrière’s track-record, his contribution is at best mundane and at worst inept; no more than in the initial confrontation between Wagner and Cosima, whose bathos would not seem out of place in an episode of Downton Abbey. Matters may improve thereafter, but the sense remains of a text that is essentially inadequate.

That drama unfolds on the human and spiritual domains, their interaction made explicit by the protagonists on that fateful night in Venice being spoken and the Buddhist figures that enact the story of Prakriti being sung. While this works fine in dramatic terms, it yet leaves the former bereft of real substance or presence – Wagner and Cosima struggling to rise above the clichéd personas accorded them by posterity, with those of singer and muse Carrie Pringle, the earnest Dr Keppler and conscientious Betty failing to emerge as more than ciphers. Those playing them, not least Nicholas Le Prevost, could only do their best with the meagre material.

The sung parts, invariably well taken, were dominated by Claire Booth’s spirited and increasingly combative Prakriti as well as Roderick Williams’s poised and affecting Buddha. Andrew Staples was a strong but never hectoring Ananda, while Hilary Summers was a consoling Mother and Richard Angas provided a lively cameo as the jaundiced Old Brahmin. In an opera where much of the action is being played out in the mind’s eye, it mattered little that the resulting drama is essentially static or stylised, though this, in itself, tends to place more attention on what was being spoken or sung and hence magnified the ineptitudes of the libretto.

At least Orpha Phelan’s direction succeeded in conveying something of the intangibility with which Wagner might well have been grappling in his final minutes, abetted by Charlie Cridlan’s stylised yet never inflexible stage design. Technically, too, the production was a success – not surprising given the combined expertise of Gilbert Nouno and Franck Rossi – in ensuring this likely culmination of Harvey’s involvement with IRCAM made a striking impression, for all that the electronic component seemed to break little new ground. Martyn Brabbins conducted with authority a work he brought to fruition at its Amsterdam premiere four years ago.

Perhaps Wagner Dream would have succeeded better had this performance not followed immediately after a day of Harvey’s music, the evening concert featuring some of his most arresting and substantial music. Here, it was in the ‘Death Interlude’ – where the ailing Wagner comes face to face with the impassive Buddha – that the music evocatively came into its own. That the composer should have rejected the latter’s entreaties to self-knowledge is not an issue: that he did so, however, by choosing the example of Siegfried, rather than of Parsifal, suggests a measure either of revisionism or ignorance which, if the latter, can hardly be excused.

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