Opera Review: Wagner Dream at the Barbican

UK premiere imagines Wagner conjuring a Buddhist-themed opera on his deathbed

At the moment of death, Richard Wagner imagines a Buddhist opera. In his vision, Prakriti, a girl of low birth, falls in love with a disciple of the Buddha, Ananda. Initially rebuffed by the brethren, she petitions the Buddha to let her join the sect.

This is Jonathan Harvey’s new opera, Wagner Dream, which sees its UK-premiere in a semi-staged performance at the Barbican Centre as part of the Present Voices series.

Two worlds co-exist on the stage, separated by a void of time and space that only Wagner and his Buddhist guide can cross; the first is Wagner’s Venice residence, which he shares with his wife Cosima and their household. Here, the performers speak the libretto, rather than sing. The second is the world of the Buddha and Prakriti, which is fully sung, with assistance of a small chorus.

Harvey’s score is a dazzling achievement. His explorations into atonal impressionism offer an ideal gateway into questions of deep spiritual unrest. At times stormy, at others, purely exotic, his music describes the impenetrable jungles of the soul, while conductor Martyn Brabbins stokes and squeezes the BBC Symphony Orchestra with great relish and �lan.

Burdened with the weight of communicating rather nebulous Buddhist philosophy, the libretto by Jean-Claude Carri�re was mostly successful. A few moments of extreme banality would not have been as problematic in a fully-staged production.

Claire Booth brings a lot of personality to the role of Prakriti, which helps to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

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* Wagner Dream was at the Barbican in Silk Street, EC2, on Saturday 29 January