The British composer Jonathan Harvey - internationally admired for his complex and colourful music, which combined a broad and non-dogmatic modernist aesthetic with a deep sense of spirituality - died last December aged 73. Premiered in Luxembourg in 2006, his final opera receives its first full UK staging by WNO, a recreation of the original, designed by Jean Kalman and Robby Duiveman and thoughtfully directed by Pierre Audi.
Karin Giegerich (Cosima) and Gerhard Brossner (Wagner) in Wagner Dream, at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Photo: David Massey
The subject coincides neatly with this year’s Wagner bicentenary. The German composer died of a heart attack in Venice in 1883, supposedly following a row with his wife Cosima about his interest in a young singer called Carrie Pringle. Meanwhile, he was still pondering writing an opera concerning the Buddha, for which he had earlier written a brief synopsis; its crucial event would have been the unprecedented admission of a woman to the Buddha’s religious order.
In Harvey’s work, to a libretto by Jean-Claude Carriere, these two elements mingle. As Wagner is first struck by his heart attack, he begins to dream the opera he never wrote, eventually dying when it comes to its end. Harvey’s score pays light homage to Wagner’s music, but is characteristically his own blend of vivid and subtle orchestral colouring and enriched harmony, all topped off with a dramatically purposive lyricism and some atmospheric electronics. It registers powerfully in this imaginative staging, with the teams of actors playing Wagner and his circle and of singers recreating the Buddhist legend both excellent, while the piece itself registers as one of the finest of recent British operas.