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02 Feb 2012

Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream

British composer Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream came to London four years after its premieres at the Holland Festival and in Luxembourg.

Jonathan Harvey: Wagner Dream

Claire Booth: Prakriti; Roderick Williams: Buddha; Hilary Summers: Mother; Simon Bailey: Vairochana; Andrew Staples: Ananda; Richard Angas: Old Brahmin; Actors: Nicholas Le Provost: Wagner; Ruth Lass: Cosima Wagner; Julia Innocento: Carrie Pringle; Richard Jackson: Dr Keppler; Sally Brooks: Betty/Vajrayogini. BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins. Director: Orpha Phelan. IRCAM Computer Music Designer: Gilbert Nuono. IRCAM Sound Engineer: Franck Rossi. Designer: Charlie Cridlan. Barbican Hall, London, 29th Jabuary 2012.

Above: Jonathan Harvey


How satisfying to see such a full Barbican Hall for the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s opera Wagner Dream. The premise of the opera is at once simple but devastatingly effective: a group of actors play Wagner and the people who surround him in his final hours, and they play out their parts on the uppermost level of the stage; as Wagner dies after a row between himself and Cosima about Carrie Pringle, an ex-Flower Maiden and ex-lover, he sees the events we see on the middle level, the opera Die Sieger (“The Victor”) that Wagner had planned. This is the Buddhist story of Prakriti, her love for the monk Ananda and the consequences of that thwarted love (Tristan, anyone?). The Buddha is able to explain Prakriti’s actions via references to her previous lives, but there is dissent when it is suggested that Prakriti join the previously male-only Buddhist order, mainly from the Old Brahmin. The Buddha accepts her; the action shifts back to Wagner’s time; the worlds collide though when it is Vairachana that guides him towards the next life (the dying Wagner himself had been seeing the characters throughout — none of the people around him, Cosima, the Doctor and so on, could).

Harvey’s grasp of drama is impeccable. The work lasts one and three quarter hours (there is no interval) and thanks to Harvey’s pacing, there is no sense of longeur. There is a sense, however, of underlying timelessness. Staging is sparse, but effective: the Wagners and their floral interloper have an austere table and chairs. The conception of austerity chimes perhaps with the overall feeling of ritual, underlined by pillars of smoke that emanated from both sides of the stage as the audience entered. The players of the BBCSO processed on stage as if about to begin a holy act (and perhaps they were). Surtitles were used, but only after the onset of the Buddhist story.

The vast stretch of Harvey’s available compositional resources was impeccably utilised. Tonal sections made great effect (a lullaby, for example) and yet did not jar in the slightest, instead appearing as just one element in the composer’s palette. The music shares with Wagner’s an ability to take the listener out of temporal time into the composer’s expanded time, and, as with Wagner, the time spent experiencing this piece seemed somehow telescoped, as one became intimately involved with the events and their musical realisation. One one level it felt as if we had been there years; on another, it was a mere moment.

Harvey’s use of electronics is by now ingrained into his mode of discourse, and the electronics emerged as the logical extension of the sound of the orchestra, taking their sounds and manipulating them not only timbrally, but in space as well. The inclusion of a choral concert the previous evening meant we were able to hear the ensemble passages linking back to that, a stylistic equivalence underlined by the programming of the weekend. Yet it was the moments of almost unbelievable beauty that Harvey was able to conjure up from his forces that will linger long in the memory, perhaps most notably his setting of Prakriti’s significant words “Love is strength, Love is beauty”.

While the acting was excellent, it was the singing that truly impressed. As the all-important Prakriti, the experienced Clare Booth excelled, her voice miraculously pure. As seductress, one has to ask if she is a Harvey equivalent to Kundry. Interactions with the creamy-voiced Hilary Summers (Mother) were a joy, and Harvey’s disjunct lines posed no problems to the vocalists. Only Andrew Staples’ tenor was, initially, disappointing — rather on the nasal side. Yet he seemed to relax into the role. Matching Booth for top accolades was Roderick Williams as the Buddha. Williams has a voice of gold. His declamation and presence were simply stunning.

Bass Richard Angas has lost none of his authority, and he projected the Old Brahmin, so stuck in the old ways’ rules, with real strength and conviction, while bass-baritone Simon Bailey made a fine fist of Vairochana. Martyn Brabbins’ conducting was beautifully confident, and the BBCSO responded by reminding us all why they are without parallel in demanding contemporary music. Alas, illness prevented the composer himself from attending. But there is no doubting that this weekend confirmed Harvey’s status at the head of British music, and similarly there is no doubting that this performance of Wagner Dream was the highlight of this mini-festival.

Colin Clarke

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