A journey to the other side

Living the dream: David Stout as Buddha. Picture: David Massey

Wagner's Dream

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

AS A title, Wagner's Dream is perhaps a misnomer as this complex multi-layered opera by the late British composer Jonathan Harvey, bears only a fragile and distant echo of anything remotely Wagner.

Harvey who was a local lad being born in Sutton Coldfield in 1939, an area often referred to by those who do not possess a map as Warwickshire, died in December 2012 aged 73.

He was renowned for his experimental approach to his music developing several of his themes through diverse influences, including the analysis of sound by electronics. It is no surprise then that the musical work here is clearly Harvey's Dream rather than Wagner's.

It's a surreal and ambitious proposition where Harvey imagines that at the point of Wagner's real death from a heart attack in 1833, he struggles, in his final moments, to conceive the story of an unwritten work on Buddasim.

In so doing it provides an opportunity to explore the Buddhist faith and the transition of both his creative and spiritual conscience at the precise moment that his real earthly life is ending. 

First premiered in Luxembourg in 2006, the WNO, have re-created the original and delivered an impressive and imaginative staging of this, Harvey's last work.

There is some unique lighting and effects in order to create the illusion of both the physical and imagined world. There is even a pre warning of the use of fire, no doubt to prevent a stampede from those audience members who might believe the theatre is burning down.

Robin Tritschler  as Ananda and Claire Booth as Pakati.

The libretto by Jean-Claude Carriere, neatly crafts these two worlds into a single view and as we see Wagner failing in his last hours at the front of stage, the opera he is creating in his mind appears behind him.  There is a clear performance separation as the opera is both a play and an opera with actors portraying Wagner and his immediate family and the singers who create the emerging Buddhist opera.

The imagined opera is that of a young Girl Pakati, who to be close to the man she has come to love Ananda, played by Robin Tritschler, must choose to relinquish the very essence of her womanhood in order to become part of a Buddhist brotherhood and live her life as a celibate companion with him rather than as a natural woman.

The two stories, that of Wagner's dying moments and the plight of Pakati, are both anxious and difficult and the score reflects this as it is irritable and nervous from the start fusing high note clusters with electronics and ethnic percussion. Throughout there is little respite from this constant questioning tonality.

The singing though is impressive with a commanding performance from David Stout as Buddha and Claire Booth as Pakati.

Conducted by Nicholas Collon there were moments when sonically the performance control was lost, principally with the orchestra overpowering some of the acted lines and at the times when Wagner and his attendees panic, as he drifts between his differing mind states, the whole effect seemed nothing but chaotic.

There is a lot to take in with the performance running in a single act at just under two hours given it is performed in three languages of German , Pali with mantras in Sanskrit, the complexity of the two hypothetical stories and the scale of the projection, lighting and staging effects.

The separate elements do not always blend as well as director Pierre Audi intends but the sum total is a challenging experience that stays with you long after you leave.

Jeff Grant

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