Tuesday 31 January 2012

Review of Wagner Dream at the Barbican

At various times in his life Wagner talked of writing an opera based on a Buddhist story. Entitled Die Sieger it concerned a young woman (Prakriti) who fell in love with one of Buddha's disciples (Ananda) and ended up being the first woman to be admitted to the Buddhist order. Wagner got as far as producing a prose summary for the libretto, quite what sort of opera he would have made of it is one of the fascinating what-ifs of history.

Jonathan Harvey has used this Buddhist opera as the centrepiece for his opera Wagner Dream with a libretto by Jean-Claude Carriere. Carriere is a French screenwriter and actor who collaborated with film director Luis Bunel and also with Peter Brook on The Mahabharata.

The opera is structured on two levels. Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima are in a hotel in Venice; they argue about Wagner's relationship with the singer Carrie Pringle. Wagner has a heart attack. On the brink of  dying he is approached by Vairochana who informs him that something is left undone from his life. Wagner's Buddhist themed opera then unfolds before the dying man, though he is the only one who can see it, Cosima, the Doctor and the Maid can see nothing. The Wagners are played by actors, with their scenes as melodrama. The Buddhist opera is fully sung.

The piece received its first UK performance at the Barbican on Sunday as part of BBC Radio 3's Total Immersion event. It was semi-staged by Orpha Phelan (designed by Charlie Cridlan) with the Wagners and the Buddhist opera on separate stages behind the orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Harvey uses an orchestra of 22 players including substantial percussion; though all the players had microphones and the sound mixed with the electronics produced by Gilbert Nouno, the IRCAM computer music designer, with Franck Rossi as sound engineer. Seated in the orchestra were an additional 4 singers, also miked, who were heard but not seen, they provided additional comment. Their text was omitted from the surtitles; in fact with such a complex multi-layers event I would have felt it helpful to have the printed text.

Wagner was played by Nicholas Le Prevost and Cosima by Ruth Lass. But frankly the text they had to work with was poor. The effect of Carriere's dialogue for the Wagners was almost bathetic and completely nullified the effect of the subtleness of the music created by Harvey to surround the text. What might have been a mix of interesting textures, live music, electronics, spoken text, was blunted by the bad sitcom level of the dialogue.

Vairochana (singer Simon Bailey) is the only character to bridge both worlds, so that his dialogues with Wagner are a mixture of sung and spoken text. When the Buddhist opera starts this leaves the creators with a dramaturgical problem; what to do with the Wagners, the doctor and the maid (and eventually Carrie Pringle as well). Only Wagner can hear and react to the opera, the rest are required to act silent puzzlement for 90 minutes. Spoken interjections have a totally different effect to sung ones, if Wagner had been singing then the results would perhaps been different and rather atmospheric. As it was Le Prevost's interjections of comment and puzzlement were rather pointless and the other actors seemed redundant; add to this the inherent problem with speech, it inevitably pulls the focus from the music no matter how unimportant the spoken statement.

For the Buddhist opera, the story of Prakriti, we had 6 singers. Simon Bailey as Vairochana, who took no direct part in the Buddhist opera but interacted with Wagner, Claire Booth as Prakriti, Andrew Staples as Ananda (the man she falls in love with), with Hilary Summers as Prakriti's mother who supports her. Roderick Williams played Buddha and Richard Angas an Old Brahmin. As Ananda is part of Buddha's order  he is not allowed to have relations with women. Prakriti challenges Buddha and she is taunted by the Old Brahmin. But ultimately Buddha allows her to join the order, though her relationship with Ananda will be an entirely sexless friendship.

Finally, the Buddhist opera over, Buddha and Vairochana sing to Wagner as he dies.

I am quite sure that Harvey and Carriere were aiming for a subtlety and richness which is not apparent from my rather bald summary. Harvey's vocal lines were quite plain and chant based; eminently singable, the results were a little uninteresting though clearly intended to have an intensely meditative quality. The contemplative nature of Harvey's setting of the Buddhist opera meant that vocally it lacked drama and the interest was very much in the orchestra.

Most contemporary composers have a tendency to try and re-invent opera in their own image.. In Wagner Dream Harvey and Carrier have attempted something rich and complete which combines Wagner and Buddhism in a curiously fascinating manner. But though I appreciated aspects of the craftsmanship, the total effect of the opera (105 minutes with no interval) was to leave me unmoved.

It received a strong performance. The actors Nicholas Le Prevost (Wagner), Ruth Lass (Cosima), Julia Innocenti (Carrie Pringle), Richard Jackson (Dr. Keppler), Sally Brooks (the Maid) did their best with the material they were given and Le Prevsot almost convinced as the dying composer.

Claire Booth as Prakriti took the lions share of the singing, spinning out Harvey's lines with ease. In fact she sang the role in the opera's premiere with Netherlands Opera. Roderick Williams brought gravitas and convincing otherworldliness to the role of Buddha. Andrew Staples gave strong support in the under written role of Ananda and Hilary Summers was completely wasted in the tiny role of Prakriti's mother. Richard Angas contributed the small role of the old Brahmin.

The electronics were generally of the subtle kind, almost sound effects blending in with the music. They helped contribute to the unworldly atmosphere of the piece. I think that Harvey intended there to be an aural difference between the world of the Wagners and the Buddhist opera, but one just one hearing I could not detect it.

The whole was conducted by Martin Brabbins in an unflapably capable manner. And the BBC Symphony Orchestra played brilliantly, and the music for the orchestra was some of the best in the evening. This was an important premiere and was have to be thankful to the BBC for continuing to present such things. The Barbican Hall was by no means full, the stalls were to capacity but the other areas seemed nearly empty.

When the opera was staged at the Grand Theatre, Luxemberg, Andrew Clements was extremely positive about it in the Guardian. I only wish that I could feel the same.  It will be interesting to see what WNO makes of the opera when they perform it next year.

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