A conspicuously rich weekend of opera concluded this evening with the first UK performance of Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream. A fictional extrapolation of Wagner's regrets at not having completed his Buddhist stage work Die Sieger, the opera involves a singing cast dramatising the story of the girl Prakriti and an acting ensemble playing out a meta-drama of Wagner's distended, visionary death. The programme is available to download here.
The music is hugely kaleidoscopic, scored for a chamber orchestra, percussion and a chorus all amplified and mixed beside a range of pre-recorded music relayed in speakers extending from the stage into and around the back of the auditorium. Never has the Barbican's Total Immersion series, examining composers over a weekend of their music, seemed more apt. A late surge in interest in the concert meant that the balcony was opened to concert-goers but there was no time to re-work the already-set sound system. For many then the 'surround sound' element of the experience was only available at a vicarious remove.
None of this detracted from the quality of musicianship. Despite great clarity not only in the scoring but also in the tonal density of the music (there is often a great deal of Eastern style chords built on natural harmonics and penta- or small unit- tonic cells) the vocal lines can be quite exploded and extreme. Claire Booth is well-known for her involvement in this modernity and sang with the sort of assurance that might make you believe it was Poulenc. Less well-known for this is the tenor Andrew Staples, singing the object of Booth Prakriti's affections, Ananda. The aria in which he describes the background of his order's master Siddharta is the gilt, light-filled showpiece of the work and Staples sang it beautifully, as if Ferrando had taken over for a moment. Siddartha, the Buddha himself, was sung by Roderick Williams. Moving and singing with an inimitable composure he inhabited the person of the Buddha even without the long baritone melismas that Harvey writes for this extraordinary character. Simon Bailey has a deeper quality to his baritone, though the same clean line, a lovely character to have in tandem with the voice of Siddharta, given that, as Vairochana, he was singing the equivalent of the angel Gabriel. Hilary Summers and Richard Angus as Prakriti's mother and a Brahim elder were the voices of caution on either side.
Orpha Phelan's staging put the action on two levels so that the singers could remain distinct from the actors - the dream from the reality. This was elegant and worked nicely, with the actors supplying the real-time human interaction that the formalised action of the singers might have shut off. It also provided a perinent link with the music. Naturally, the story within Wagner's 'dream' is the opera proper but the music incorporates both narratives. There are subtle, echt-Schopenhauerian quotations both from Parsifal - when Prakriti is asked 'what she knows' - and, later, Tristan & Isolde, when the idea of renunciation of desire is being discussed. Elsewhere there is often an Ivesian confrontation in the music, two musics at odds. Much of the lyric, operatic, material has the dramatic quality of appearing out of the cacophony. The chosen few of the BBC Symphony Orchestra played marvellously. Along with a quartet of singers (a core group of the choral ensemble Exaudi) everything was performed with a diaphanous sense of poise, essential in a sound-design performance. The dependable Martin Brabbins may have had quite a say in this security. A fascinating and non-ironically sensuous evening's music - and perhaps, even more importantly, a substantial philosophical experience as well.