On 13th February 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in Venice. Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream imagines that in the composer’s final delirium, he was visited by a Buddhist spiritual guide and granted a vision of Die Sieger – the Buddhist opera which he planned but never wrote.
Given Harvey’s own Buddhist beliefs, and his untimely death last year, the idea is both powerful and poignant; and this belated UK premiere by Welsh National Opera was commendable and brave.
In Pierre Audi’s production, two worlds coexist on the stage- simply represented by a split-level set. The Wagner household is presented in monochrome, and with spoken dialogue. Behind them (and the onstage orchestra, conducted with pinpoint accuracy by Nicholas Collon) is the glowing red-and-ochre world of ancient India, where Die Sieger is played out in music of breathtaking beauty.
Delicately integrated electronics are just part of a luminous, glittering soundscape, all underpinned by a deep lyricism and the unmistakable undertow of the drama. It’s rare in contemporary opera to hear genuinely dramatic music. In that sense alone, Harvey’s score is Wagnerian.
And while the German-speaking actors seemed inhibited, the singers were wholly committed: Claire Booth’s impassioned Pakati gave the story its soul, while David Stout as the Buddha fittingly dominated every scene in which he appeared. Richard Wiegold, as the spirit-guide Vairochana, had some of the score’s loveliest music, delivered with a heart-melting simplicity.
And yet – for this listener, anyway Wagner Dream is problematic. Its central narrative of renunciation may well convey a profound truth to a convinced Buddhist. To this worldly westerner it felt, at root, cold – something that could never be said of Wagner’s work. In this beautiful and fascinating opera, Jonathan Harvey has, intentionally or not, demonstrated why for Richard Wagner, Die Sieger could only ever remain a dream.