2013 is Wagner’s bicentenary year and Wagner operas are everywhere you look, but Welsh National Opera chose to mark the occasion in a rather different way, with the first fully-staged UK performance of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream. WNO’s daring has paid off, with critics praising Harvey’s ‘hauntingly beautiful’ work and remarking that ‘WNO deserves the highest credit for being the first in the UK to stage this important piece.’
The opera revisits the day of Wagner’s death in 1883 and imagines the Buddhist opera that he had long dreamt of writing. As the stricken man drifts in and out of consciousness, he is visited by a Buddhist guide who grants him a vision of the opera that never was – the Buddhist legend of Prakriti and Ananda. The tale offers poignant parallels with Harvey’s own situation: he died in December 2012, 6 months before the UK premiere of this most important work, but his memory was kept alive at the performances with a large picture of Harvey projected onto the backdrop as the cast took their bows.
Wagner Dream was first performed at the Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg in April 2007 and in its original version the text was entirely in English. However, prior to its UK premiere, David Poutney, director of WNO, suggested that the cultural dialogue of the opera would be enhanced and clarified by translation into German and Pali (the ancient language spoken by Buddha) for the German and Buddhist parts respectively. Harvey agreed wholeheartedly and it is this new version which was performed by WNO.
The stellar cast at WNO included Claire Booth as Prakiti, Dale Duesing as Buddha and Richard Angas as the Old Brahmin, led by the rising young conductor Nicholas Collon. The production, by director Pierre Audi, is a re-staging of the original premiere production.
‘hauntingly beautiful… a score that takes us into visionary realms’
‘Jonathan Harvey's hauntingly beautiful opera Wagner Dream… is unquestionably the most self-defining work by Harvey… His own Buddhist preoccupations inspired a score that takes us into visionary realms, mixing orchestra and live electronics to summon up both shadowy hints of Wagner's sound world and something more exotic, and at WNO Nicholas Collon mixes them with a fluid baton to produce pure Harvey. Harvey's singer-friendly lines encourage a number of subtle characterisations, not least from Claire Booth on her journey to enlightenment as Pakati.’
The Telegraph (John Allison), 8 June 2013
‘Harvey's exquisite sounds’
‘Visually stunning and beautifully lit, the brilliant jewel colours of India mingle with the yellow and gold of the Buddhists, as seductive to the eye as Harvey's exquisite sounds are to the ear, the ring of fire a decidedly Wagnerian touch. Yet director Pierre Audi brings a clarity that has the two narrative strands unfold on different levels and periodically merge; a black Corbusier-curved chaise longue permits the silken-robed Wagner, even in his agony, to be the reclining Buddha of western music… The singing is uniformly good: Claire Booth's gorgeous-toned Pakati is exceptional, with David Stout's Buddha full of compassion, and Nicholas Collon conducts the blue-clad musicians with authority… the stab at the heart came at the end. Once the cast and creative teams had taken their bow, a picture of Harvey, who died in 2012, was projected behind them.’
The Guardian (Rian Evans), 7 June 2013
‘an infinite variety of sonic timbres swishing round the theatre’
‘It has some extraordinary music: just 20 instruments are involved, but the electronics send an infinite variety of sonic timbres swishing round the theatre. Yet it also has an earnestness… In Pierre Audi’s staging the increasingly crowded scene around Wagner’s deathbed is placed downstage and spoken in German, while the Indian legend is sung upstage (in the 2,500-year-old sacred language of Pali) by traditionally costumed performers on an platform above the orchestra. The orchestra itself (superbly conducted by Nicholas Collon) inhabits both worlds; indeed, the most exciting music is Harvey’s underscoring of Wagner’s agonised rants — music that suggests body and soul splintering apart. The singing is exemplary, especially from Claire Booth, thrilling as the emboldened Indian girl… Jean Kalman’s designs add glowing yellow strip-lights… a very Götterdämmerung-like ring of fire.’
The Times (Richard Morrison), 9 June 2013
‘the electronics have a delicacy and a magically spaced-out quality… Harvey’s scoring for conventional instruments is no less exquisite’
‘Both musically and dramaturgically the opera is a palimpsest: layer on layer, from Harvey’s own culminating work and death, down through Wagner’s, and on into the virtual world of the Buddha and the hidden reality of Schopenhauer’s noumenon, the profound truth which, he maintained, we can only ever glimpse through music. To achieve this “travel”, Harvey worked in the studios at IRCAM in Paris, and the electronics have a delicacy and a magically spaced-out quality… Harvey’s scoring for conventional instruments is no less exquisite... He applies different styles to the dramatic levels: a kind of frenzied modernism for the real-life elements, a more placid, lucid, but none the less angular manner for the human drama of the Sieger play, and an altogether simpler, more serene quasi-tonal line and harmony for the Buddha and his followers.’
The Arts Desk (Stephen Walsh), 7 June 2013
‘Harvey’s score is an astonishing, transcendent thing’
‘Harvey’s score is an astonishing, transcendent thing. The electronics meld assuredly with the live orchestra… the sounds produced live, though, are no less compelling... The scoring during the spoken scenes is a marvel of subtlety and the Buddhist music is beautiful, with one foot in pentatonicism and the other in brilliant, Stockhausen-esque mysticism. It’s all a study in consistency and effectiveness from Harvey… Overall, it’s a triumph, and WNO deserves the highest credit for being the first in the UK to stage this important piece – so clearly on a par with those recent triumphs of contemporary opera The Tempest, The Minotaur and Written on Skin. What a fine tribute as well to Jonathan Harvey… With its deep-set spirituality and lively, fascinatingly angled dialogue with music’s past – not to mention its adept use of electronics – Wagner Dream encapsulates a lot of what is so special about this composer.’
Bachtrack (Paul Kilbey), 7 June 2013