Wagner Dream, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff, June 2013Posted on 7 June 2013
This was the first staged production of Jonathan Harvey’s opera Wagner Dream, first performed by Netherlands Opera in Luxembourg in 2007, and in concert at the Barbican in January 2012. Harvey’s opera is set in Venice on the day of Wagner’s death in 1883, and within ten minutes the composer, very well played by actor Gerhard Brössner, has a heart attack that leads to his passing at the end of the opera.
In the meantime, Wagner sees Vairochana (Richard Wiegold), a Buddha who tells him that his breathing will soon cease, but his state of mind at death will determine his next life. Vairochana helps Wagner see his planned opera Die Sieger (The Victors) on a Buddhist theme, and we the audience witness scenes from this opera on a higher plane at the rear of the stage. When it’s over, Wagner says to the consternation of those around him that it won’t work, but in the end when asked how he feels he says Es ist alles gut (Everything’s fine), so somehow the vision of his opera has brought him peace.
Peace he certainly needed after a flaming row with his wife Cosima. She resents the importunity of a flower maiden named Carrie Pringle who is in Vienna and may well visit. In fact, Ms Pringle does arrive in the midst of Wagner’s visions, causing further distress to Cosima who orders her out while the doctor tries to calm everything down. This aspect of the performance is a play, spoken in German with excellent enunciation from the actors, while the imagined Buddhist opera is sung in Pali, the language of Buddhism in its early days, with chanted mantras in Sanskrit.
The story of the Buddhist opera concerns a young couple Pakati and Ananda who are in love, she from a lower caste, he a disciple and cousin of the Buddha. Her distress at being parted from him causes her to threaten to kill herself and set fire to the whole world, and the video projection of flames, with real flames later on, are very effective. In fact the production by Pierre Audi, with designs and lighting by Jean Kalman is excellent, with the small orchestra on stage midway between the milieu of Wagner at front stage below, and the world of the Buddha rear stage above.
With two worlds and two main languages this is not an easy work to produce, and while all the singers were very good indeed, I particularly liked the strength of David Stout as the Buddha, and Claire Booth as Pakati, whose voice seemed to embrace an Indian musical timbre.
Composer Jonathan Harvey, who died in December 2012, was himself a Buddhist, and his music embraced electronic contributions from various directions, as well as the orchestra on stage under the direction of Nicholas Collon. Somehow death haunted the music towards the end, quite apart from anything happening on stage, and I found myself thinking bleak thoughts about much-loved relatives who left this world after suffering heart attacks. We cannot know what goes on in a person’s mind during their last moments, but this one-and-a-half-hour opera gives a fictional account of what might have been going in Wagner’s.
Performances continue on June 7 at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff, and on June 12 at the Birmingham Hippodrome — for details click here.