wed 22/05/2024

Wagner Dream, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Wagner Dream, Welsh National Opera

Wagner Dream, Welsh National Opera

Jonathan Harvey's late opera rewrites the Bayreuth master's death as a Buddhist allegory

Those who knew the composer Jonathan Harvey, who died of motor neurone disease last December, will remember him as the least demonstrative, least theatrical of men. His presence was gentle, soft-spoken, essentially inward – the physical image of the Buddhism that came to dominate his spiritual consciousness in the latter half of his life.

That so intensely pure-minded and modest a musician should have been fascinated by a genius as ostentatious and self-advertising as Wagner is one of those attractions of opposites that are the stuff of art. Whether or not Wagner Dream, Harvey’s final operatic working out of his obsession, is quite on its hero’s level might seem rather doubtful. But the comparison would be futile in any case. There is not all that much Wagnerian about Wagner Dream.

The connection is through Wagner’s own Buddhism, or rather his somewhat theoretical interest in the subject (in life he was a meat-eating vegetarian and a love-hungry eugenicist). There is Buddhism in Tristan, Parsifal, even Götterdämmerung. But his most overt treatment was a brief sketch for a scenario about the Buddha called Die Sieger (The Victors), not a note of which was ever actually composed.

The electronics have a delicacy and a magically spaced-out quality

Harvey co-opted this scenario and turned it into a music drama that Wagner is imagined as composing, in thought at least, on his deathbed. Struck down by a heart attack in his rented Venetian palazzo, he is assailed by a vision of his unwritten drama, whose acting out is in some not very clear sense seen as fulfilling his life’s purpose and enabling it to end on the right note for him to achieve what the buddha Vairochana calls his “final condition.”

This action takes place, so to speak, on a higher plane, upstage  behind the orchestra, itself relocated by the director, Pierre Audi, in a temporary pit on the stage side of the footlights. Downstage, in front of the orchestra, Wagner suffers and dies, attended by his wife Cosima, the doctor, and the young English singer Carrie Pringle, all unaware of the Buddhist action and baffled by Wagner’s conversation with it. Harvey (pictured below) allots these “real-life” parts to speaking actors, playing here in German; the Sieger drama is sung in Pali, the language of the Buddha himself. The sense of distance, of unworldly remoteness, is total. The vocal setting of this almost-lost language kept reminding me of Stravinsky’s Abraham and Isaac, with its text in Hebrew, a language of which Stravinsky knew not one syllable but which he set with a haunting sense of its ritual significance.

To describe in detail the many levels of Harvey’s score would take a much longer review than this. 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 for once the electronics have a delicacy and a magically spaced-out quality (in both senses) that fully justify what has often in the past been little more than an arid concession to the god technology. But Harvey’s scoring for conventional instruments is no less exquisite, and only occasionally lapses into telly-ad tinkly orientalism. 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 orchestral playing throughout seems immaculate.

What I don’t find in this music is any very strong dramatic impulse. For a hundred minutes or so the work proceeds slowly towards its goal, with the odd flurry of activity, but without much audible variety of pacing, even when the admirably unobtrusive conductor, Nicholas Collon, seems to be waving his arms quite fast. The music’s activity is textural more than rhythmic, inward facing, self-communing. It’s the music of a reflective more than an athletic soul: a deep thinker with a fine ear but (perhaps) an underused body.

Audi’s production (first seen in Luxembourg in 2007) is simple but multi-planed, subtly stage-managed, beautifully lit (by Jean Kalman): it matches and clarifies the music’s virtues to perfection. The different worlds come into sharp focus. Apart from the couch on which Wagner dies, there is no scenery, few props, yet the sense of time and locale is always exact, clinched by music, light and costume (Robby Duiveman). Thank heaven and Nirvana, there’s no risk here of a 1950s update.

The cast could hardly be bettered. Claire Booth is superb as the young untouchable Pakati, who through her love for the monk Ananda (Robin Tritschler) persuades the Buddha (David Stout) to admit her to his order, previously closed to women. There is an obvious parallel here with The Magic Flute, and the same vocal contrast in the male roles, beautifully presented by these two singers. Richard Angas (pictured above) is impressive as the crotchety Old Brahmin, who naturally opposes this outrage against nature and tradition. Richard Wiegold is excellent as the stately Vairochana, Rebecca De Pont Davies no less so as Pakati’s vibrant, perhaps too youthful Mother, who is herself received along with her daughter.

Inevitably the actors have the more thankless task: like the Pasha Selim in Mozart’s Seraglio, they can only stand amazed as the music flows past them and away from them. They do it, nevertheless, with panache: Gerhard Brössner as Wagner, Karin Giegerich as Cosima, Ulrike Sophie Rindermann as the unfortunate Carrie Pringle, the Flower Maiden remembered by history only as the likely cause of Wagner’s death. That’s one myth, among several, that Harvey reinvents.

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