Mastodon WNO, Wagner Dream: Review Summary - The Wagnerian

WNO, Wagner Dream: Review Summary

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday 11 June 2013 | 7:19:00 pm

It must be said that when Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream was premiered in 2007, a more than interesting soundscape, and dramatic idea, together with a wonderful production  was somewhat marred by what might be kindly described as an "naive" libretto. Not the overall narrative  but the dialogue -  if that is not too oxymoronic a thought. More than occasionally the dialogue - it is both sung and spoken - simply jars in its banality. I always thought that if one could surmount this fact the work overall would do Harvey's musical and narrative ideas much more justice. So, when, WNO announced that it was to have the libretto rewritten - German for the German characters and in Pali for the  Buddhist ones - it seemed like more than a wise and intriguing idea. This is especially so when the Pali is not just a direct translation  (probably impossible given the age and disuse of the language) but a direct re-write in places that removed its "idiosyncrasies".  But does this "work" or indeed improve  the production overall? Sadly, as is often the case for "modern works" performed anywhere but London, there are fewer reviews than we would like to have chosen from. However, given how uniform their thoughts are perhaps this makes them more representative of the production over all?.


According to John Allison in the Telegraph  the new translation more than works. As he notes: "Now, with Welsh National Opera giving the work its first British staging, those "Would you like a bowl of tea" lines are disguised by the decision to translate the Buddhist part of the drama into Pali – the almost-lost language of the Buddha himself – and to render the Wagner household conversations into German. Like the seemingly perverse but ultimately poetic use of Sanskrit in Glass's Satyagraha, this move is very effective in the context of a piece imaginatively exploring what Wagner's projected opera on a Buddhist legend might have been like".

Not noting it as improvement (indeed he does no comment on the original) Stephen Walsh at The "Arts Desk" found: "...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."

Rian Evans at the Guardian, while again not commenting on the original English libretto noted less enthusiasm for the new translation saying that it is "...intended to heighten the sense of cultural dialogue, but is a costly gesture and effectively lost in the translation."


Having looked than at the new translation what of Harvey's score? John Alison notes "...a score that takes us into visionary realms, mixing orchestra and live electronics to summon up both shadowy hints of Wagner's sound world and something more exotic", summarising Wagner Dream as "...Jonathan Harvey's hauntingly beautiful opera.

At the Arts Desk Stephen Walsh goes on, "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... 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.

At Bachtrack Paul Kilbey, is no less admiring for Harvey's sound-scape, " Not that the Buddhist opera sounds anything like Wagner – it’s an irony of Harvey’s music, presumably very deliberate, that the scenes in the Wagner household have a more Wagnerian harmonic soundscape than the opera he is meant to imagine. The Buddhist scenes are a vision of transcendence, something maybe just beyond Wagner’s reach.

But Harvey’s score is an astonishing, transcendent thing. The electronics meld assuredly with the live orchestra and are often made to function as evocations of the beyond; the sounds produced live, though, are no less compelling.

The scoring during the spoken scenes is a marvel of subtlety – too much so at the opening, in fact, where the actors’ booming tones overpower the soft musical backing – and the Buddhist music is beautiful, with one foot in pentatonicism and the other in brilliant, Stockhausen-esque mysticism."


The praise for Pierre Audi's production remain uniform. A selection would include John Allison who said, " In designs by Jean Kalman, Pierre Audi's production is simplicity itself, mixing austerity with the colours of India yet clearly delineating the two worlds that meet here: a visually seductive framework for this important modern opera"

This is reiterated by Stephen Walsh, "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."

Rian Evans  goes even further, "Visually stunning and beautifully lit, the brilliant jewel colours of India mingle with the yellow and gold of the Buddhists, as seductive to the eye as Harvey's exquisite sounds are to the ear, the ring of fire a decidedly Wagnerian touch. Yet director Pierre Audi brings a clarity that has the two narrative strands unfold on different levels and periodically merge; a black Corbusier-curved chaise longue permits the silken-robed Wagner, even in his agony, to be the reclining Buddha of western music."

And finally, Phil Kilbey who find appropriately, "...director Pierre Audi’s sensitive but conceptually bold production, and the essential impression is of a dramatic multimedia artwork, which happens to crucially involve music – something of a Gesamtkunstwerk, perhaps."


John Allison, "His own Buddhist preoccupations inspired a score that takes us into visionary realms, mixing orchestra and live electronics to summon up both shadowy hints of Wagner's sound world and something more exotic, and at WNO Nicholas Collon mixes them with a fluid baton to produce pure Harvey. Harvey's singer-friendly lines encourage a number of subtle characterisations, not least from Claire Booth on her journey to enlightenment as Pakati. Richard Wiegold sings with compassionate warmth as Vairochana, who becomes Wagner's spiritual guide. Gerhard Brössner's tortured Wagner heads the non-singing cast"

Stephen Walsh, "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 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." 

Paul Kilbey, "The cast – both casts – excel. Actors Gerhard Brössner and Karin Giegerich are an appropriately unlovable Richard and Cosima, Richard unreasonable, capricious and pained; Cosima severe and hurt, but dutiful. Their very different counterparts Ananda (Robin Tritschler) and Pakati (Claire Booth) convince, with Booth relishing the opera’s most attractive, colourful vocal writing. Richard Wiegold brings grace and calmness to the role of Variochana, Wagner’s personal Buddha who guides him through his final moments; the Buddha himself, David Stout, radiates strength and warmth, both vocal and spiritual. Richard Angas as the old Brahmin sings well, but the character is weak:"

Rian Evans, "The singing is uniformly good: Claire Booth's gorgeous-toned Pakati is exceptional, with David Stout's Buddha full of compassion, and Nicholas Collon conducts the blue-clad musicians with authority"