Review: WNO - Wagner Dream @ WMC
With all the celebrations this year of the birth of Richard Wagner, one piece has given us the actual death of the composer. Few people know that he was working on an opera within a Buddhist story at the end of his life.
Entitled Die Sieger (The Victors), he had planned to create this decades earlier, yet his other work would incorporate elements of the faith. English composer Jonathan Harvey (who sadly past away last December) has conceived what might have been.
Wagner is in Venice. He is dying. He will leave behind him some of the most staggering art that has ever been seen in the western world. He argues with his second wife Cosmina (Karen Giegerich and I loved the sultry way she spoke German), over another of the composer's lovers, Carrie Pringle (Ulrike Sophie Rinderman), who sang as a Flower Maiden in his last completed opera Parsifal. After this, he has the heart attack that will eventually kill him. He is visited by Vairochanan and he has to choose to go into another life, higher or lower or just make his way to Nirvana. Wagner only wants to see his work and this is when the opera comes to life.
Half of this is a play with the Wagner side of things. It's very engrossing and the costumes for them are black, grey and navy. This production was originally staged in English and I was looking forward to hear it like this. But WNO have transformed it into German for the play part and Pali for the opera part. This is more truthful, since that's what Wagner would have spoke. It is believed that the Buddha would have spoken Pali. It has proven a challenge to the singers to learn this ancient Indian language. But it sounds just like any other language when sung in an opera. You get so used to hearing foreign languages in opera that it comes with the territory.
From watching footage of the production in Amsterdam (the world premier was in Luxembourg) the style of acting in the play seems to have drastically changed. Here at the WMC, Gerhard Brossner is a more reflective Wagner. Whilst on the continent, Belgian actor Johan Leysen gave what looked like an absolutely blazing powerhouse performance as the composer. I was expecting it to be like this, praying for it to be the same actor. All photos and the video show Leyson in the role. It seems very few photos have been taken for the Cardiff performance at this time, which was in fact the UK premier staging of the piece.
The opera side of things is the least interesting part of the show. The story is very fragmentary and simplistic. Pakati can't be with her lover Ananda, who is part of the Buddha's sect. She approaches the 'enlightened one' to speak of her woes. Will the Buddha ever consider having a woman in his collective? There may be the slightest hint of Wagner's score in here somewhere, but it is lost to what Harvey has displayed for our ears. In this Wagner does actually say ''That is not my work!'' That's clearly the case.
Two very impressive things about this are the set and Harvey's use of electronics. The play is nearest to the audience and creates a frame effect against the opera. The singers themselves perform on a raised golden square above the actors, whist the chamber orchestra play just underneath, wearing traditional attire. The fire effects and the arrival of the goddess Vajrayogini were some of the best theatrical moments. Bryony Morgan as the role, was covered in red, bare-breasted and had skulls on a huge necklace, stood like one of the Hindu gods with a leg off the floor. Grand stuff.
The electronics are what Harvey is known for. There were brief moments of sheer beauty with this and you wanted so much more. Sitting in the raised stalls the first night and the circle the second, the sound was much better on the first. We had speakers behind us for that 360-degree soundscape. I haven't experienced that for sometime. Near the end of the work, we heard a sample of Schumann's In Praise Of Tears. The reason for this being included is because Cosmina apparently played this as Wagner was dying. No other composer had as many commission out of IRCAM in Paris for the use of electronic music.
With the orchestra on stage and not in the pit, I was amazed so many rows of seats had disappeared in the front stalls. For the second night I booked up in the upper circle, only to receive a letter last week from the WMC telling me I had been upgraded. I was then given seats in the circle at no extra cost. They felt being up in the gods weren't to the productions standards and we couldn't have seen much most likely.
One thing crossed my mind during both performances - was there any need to create this piece? After all, it's not like we don't have a massive catalogue of Wagner's music to go on. Each of his operas were a good four hours and completely changed the way the art from was handled in the 19th Century. Had there been more of Wagner's opera written, it could have been finished by another composer like with other operas.
An interesting work and a great idea. Yet somehow unfulfilling.