Banal Libretto Lets Down Harvey’s Wagner Dream

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream (British premiere): Soloists, Actors, Gilbert Nouno (IRCAM computer music designer), Franck Rossi (IRCAM sound engineer), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 29.1.2012 (MB)

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


Orpha Phelan (director)
Charlie Cridlan (designs)

The Barbican’s biennial Present Voices series performs an invaluable service in bringing new opera to London. Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream is one of three works presented this season, the others being Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Sadly, I had been unable to attend the previous day’s Total Immersion events, but here at least was the British premiere of Wagner Dream. This came as the climax of a peculiarly concentrated and indeed varied bout of opera-going, following, on consecutive nights: Il prigioniero, courtesy of the Philharmonia, Così fan tutte at Covent Garden, and Der Rosenkavalier from ENO. I was not entirely convinced that Harvey’s third opera, despite an interesting premise, stood up so very well in such daunting company.

Briefly, it presents Wagner and Cosima in Venice, on the day of the former’s death joined by Carrie Pringle, the Flowermaiden whose advances, such as they were, Cosima in reality saw off. Here, by contrast, they actually receive a visit from the Scottish-Hungarian soprano (though, it must be said, it would not necessarily be very clear who she was, did one not know already). This part of the cast, played by actors, is completed by a housemaid, Betty, and a physician, Dr Keppler. Wagner in his study, meanwhile, reflects upon Die Sieger, the Buddhist opera he once planned to write and whose more productive concerns were subsumed into Parsifal, though in Harvey’s opera it is clearly more a matter of regret to Wagner that he has failed to write the work. He – and Harvey – therefore imagine Die Sieger, which is dreamed alongside the events in Venice. Prakriti – which means ‘Nature’ in Sanskrit – is an Untouchable, who falls in love with Ananda, a young monk, cousin and disciple of Prince Siddharta, the Buddha. The attraction is mutual, and deepens as Ananda eats with Prakriti and her mother; the Buddha therefore appears, unbeknown to Ananda, and creates a Tantric vision of the young monk’s beloved as the goddess Vajrayogini, thereby persuading him to leave. Prakriti goes to the Buddha and tells him she wishes to share her life with Ananda. Sympathetic, partly on account of a story from their past lives, the Buddha tells her that there is a way: she may join the order as its first woman member (echoes of The Magic Flute perhaps?)

Sad to say, the opera is severely, I should say fatally, compromised by the banality of Jean-Claude Carrière’s libretto. Even in its less embarrassing moments, it fails to progress beyond a beginner’s guide to Buddhism; moreover, it evinces little understanding of, or even sympathy for, the Wagners (whether historically or simply as potential ‘characters’). The actors’ part of the action seems like a bad soap opera, whilst the Buddhist dream has more in common, as presented, with a school assembly story than serious, let alone Wagnerian, drama. The only mildly arresting aspect is the vision of Vajrayogini, whose scarlet hue at least provides relief from the otherwise drab production. Indeed, it was difficult to detect any greater insight from director Orla Pherlan than from Carrière, though perhaps she was hamstrung by the ritualistic element to a work that is hardly Parsifal. At least the three levels of action were clear: the Wagners at the top, the Buddhist world next down, and the orchestra beneath. (Vairochana, Wagner’s Buddhist dream guide, capably sung by Simon Bailey, is the only one to move between the two staged levels.)

Harvey’s music is, unsurprisingly, more interesting, though ears more attuned to quasi-Eastern ritualism than mine might have responded more readily. Much, though by no means all, of the language is surprisingly tonal, and the electronics offer spectralist as well, I think, as aleatory variation. (Amplification of the singers, however, becomes wearing, at least to me.) In many ways, the most intriguing, as well as dramatic, music was that of one of the interludes, in which we were mercifully free from Carrière’s contribution. As a whole, though, I found a concert work such as Speakings, performed at the 2008 Proms, more dramatically satisfying. Moreover, I remained unconvinced that the occasional hints of Wagner – I suppose there had to be a Tristan-chord; certain sonorities and timbres suggest Parsifal – add very much other than perhaps the slight joy of recognition. For better, or worse, the Buddha tends to be surrounded by pentatonic, or at least pentatonic-inspired, harmonies.

So far as I could tell, the musical performances were excellent (despite that caveat relating to amplification). Martyn Brabbins’s leadership of the BBC Symphony Orchestra convinced, combining ritualism and a more involving labyrinthine quality to what I presume to have been the composer’s intended effect. Hilary Summers seemed a little wasted as the Mother, but Claire Booth, allotted the more obviously dramatic music, shone as brightly as one might have expected. Andrew Staples proved a sincere Ananda, his bearing and vocal delivery as involving as Carrière’s banalities would permit, and Roderick Williams a properly dignified, musically attentive Buddha. There was a nice turn from Richard Angas as the Old Brahmin, horrified at the prospect of a woman joining the order, even if ‘caricature’ would seem too generous a description for the words he was offered. Such were the ‘drama’ and direction that it is perhaps unfair to say very much of the actors, other than that they failed to draw one in. For all its faults, Tony Palmer’s Wagner film presents a Richard and Cosima of considerably greater credibility. Carrie Pringle, anything but a siren, is merely annoying. Perhaps others will have gained more than I did from the experience, but I cannot imagine hurrying to a subsequent performance. Welsh National Opera has scheduled a staging.

Mark Berry