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1From: Wagner News 206, July 2012, pp. 12-14. Wagner’s Dream or Wagner’s Nightmare? Professor Karel Werner It is well known that Wagner was on and off preoccupied with the idea of writing a Buddhist opera, Die Sieger (The Victors), after becoming acquainted with Schopenhauer’s philosophy (Sept. 1854), which he supplemented by a study of Eugène Burnouf’s Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme indien. He talked about writing and composing Die Sieger even after completing Parsifal. What his sudden death deprived us of has now been boldly accomplished by Jonathan Harvey in his opera Wagner Dream, composed in 2007 to the libretto by JeanClaude Carrièra and premièred the same year in Amsterdam. It was given its first showing in this country on 29 January 2012 in the Barbican Hall, directed by Orpha Phelan, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Martyn Brabbins and sung by six competent soloists and a small chorus. Wagner here dreams his last opera while in a coma in the period between his heart attack and death on 13 February 1883 in the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice, while events around him are shown through protagonists who are actors with speaking roles. Cosima’s diaries enable us to follow the genesis of the idea of Die Sieger. In his programme notes Christopher Cook, in conversation with the composer and conductor, uses them and regards her entry of 29 June 1869, according to which Wagner said he might do Die Sieger as a play, as being his first mention of the theme. But the entry of 2 April 1875 already suggests it would be an opera. On 27 February 1880 Cosima records: ‘R. relates to us the story underlying his Sieger, wonderful and moving’ ... the opera ‘will be gentler than Parsifal’. On 6 January 1881, a year before completing the score of Parsifal at Palermo, Wagner again promises to compose Die Sieger, if Cosima will look after him well, and he speaks about the fact that both stories are about the redemption of a woman. The libretto combines the story, which Wagner took for his sketch from Burnouf, with Buddhist notions about the process of dying as an intermediary stage before the next incarnation and with known as well as fictional events taking place around Wagner’s unconscious body. First Wagner is approached in his intermediary state by the transcendental Buddha Vairochana, who explains to him that he is free to make some choices as to his immediate steps. Wagner finally decides to compose Die Sieger and the semi-staged production of the opera unfolds. Prakriti, a young woman, and Ananda, a prince whose cousin, Siddhartha, renounced the world and became the Buddha, fall in love. The Buddha, who has another plan for his cousin, appears (seen only by the audience) and turns Prakriti for a moment into the Tantric goddess Vajrayogini. Overwhelmed, Ananda prostrates himself and leaves. But Prakriti cannot live without him and approaches the Buddha, surrounded by his monks, who now include Ananda. She asks if she can live near Ananda. The Buddha, always compassionate, explains to her that


the rules make it impossible. Taunted by an old Brahmin watching the scene, Prakriti tries to drag Ananda away. The Buddha explains the situation by relating a jataka, the story of their former incarnation when Prakriti as a high Brahmin’s daughter, rejected the low-born Ananda, who was wooing her and who then lived his life alone. Now Prakriti wishes to kill herself, but Ananda persuades the Buddha to admit women to his order, and Prakriti becomes a nun. Who, then, are the victors? In the first place the Buddha, who bears also the title Victor (Jina, as do other renouncers who have reached liberation from further incarnations) and Ananda, of whom tradition says that he was liberated soon after the Buddha’s death, and presumably also Prakriti whose passion was calmed by monastic discipline. (Her name means ‘nature’ and in the original story she may have been a symbolical figure representing the natural sensual and emotional attachments tying one to this world of suffering and repeated deaths and births.) Simultaneously with the opera, enacted in Wagner’s mind and watched by Vairochana and the audience, the actual and presumed events of the fateful morning are taking place. So we have here a glimpse into three dimensions, the transcendental one between incarnations, the realm of artistic creation in the artist’s mind and the ordinary world of ‘real’ events. These begin with Cosima’s display of jealousy over the arrival in Venice of Carrie Pringle, a flower maiden from the première of Parsifal, who had caught Wagner’s eye. Apparently upset, Wagner withdraws to his study, contemplating his failure to realise the opera Die Sieger with its message of liberation. After his heart attack when he becomes unconscious (and starts creating the opera in his mind) Betty, the maid, enters and, horrified, summons Cosima, who tries to nurse him. Dr Keppler is called and takes some measures to revive him. Even Carrie Pringle arrives, but it is not clear whether she is there in person or as a part of Wagner’s visions. The libretto purports that Wagner, having composed his opera in his mind but unsure whether it was the right thing to be preoccupied with, briefly regains consciousness and asks Cosima’s forgiveness (a presumption of the libretto). Having physically died, Wagner is led in the other dimension by Vairochana to his future destiny. The libretto takes some further liberties, for example with the monastic history of Buddhism. The Buddha actually allowed ordination of women when Ananda persuaded him to grant it to his, the Buddha’s, aunt and foster mother, who raised him after his mother died within a week of his birth. As to the events around Wagner’s death, they have never been sufficiently clarified. Any written account by Dr Keppler, an independent witness, which may have existed, was presumably suppressed. What would seem clear is that Cosima had intercepted Carrie Pringle’s letter, from which she learned of her arrival in Venice and possibly some other worrying circumstances, and seized by jealousy, created a scene in which she (unusually for her) even raised her voice causing Wagner to take refuge in his study. This is testified to by his (or von Bülow’s?) daughter Isolde, but she does not appear in the dying scene in the opera, although 2

it is most unlikely that, being in the house, she would not rush to the side of her father. The appearance of Pringle is, by Jonathan Harvey’s admission, another liberty he and the librettist took. Cosima had noticed Pringle before in a rehearsal and remarks on 5 August 1881 in her diary that she sang Agathe’s aria very tolerably. So she could easily have caught Wagner’s eye. Whether Cosima sensed some danger at this stage, cannot be known. It is also unknown whether there was a liaison between Wagner and Pringle; Harvey regards it as quite likely. Cosima discontinued her diary from the fateful day, but there is an important testimony to her state of mind after her jealous outburst and Wagner’s abrupt withdrawal into his study. Their son Siegfried was also in the house and was practising on the piano in the salon at the time, unaware of what had been happening between his parents. His mother came in, sat down at the grand piano and started playing Schubert’s Lob der Tränen (Praise of Tears) with a ‘completely transported’ expression. Siegfried says that he had never heard her play before as she had been dedicating all her time to her husband’s needs. When the maid came in with the news of Wagner’s collapse, Cosima rushed with an expression of passionate anguish to the door, almost splitting it (Siegried Wagner, Erinnerungen, 1923, p. 35ff.). It is most likely that Siegfried was also present in the dying moments of his father at his bedside. Judging from the previous gestation of Wagner’s masterpieces we can assume that what Wagner needed was another muse to compose his last intended opera. But what the longsuffering Minna had endured, more or less with resignation, was unbearable to Cosima and prompted her outburst with tragic consequences. I am not competent to give expert opinion on the music, only my personal impressions. I saw Harvey’s Inquest of Love in 1993, felt that there were some elements of spirituality in his music which remotely reminded me by its mood of Scriabin and I quite enjoyed it despite David Pountney’s inept production. This time I was less affected by the music which apparently owes a lot to electronic treatment, while the vocal parts seemed to me not much more than intoned speech. The libretto, which was well presented by surtitles, seemed to me rather pedestrian. One misses Wagner’s superb poetry which sometimes comes through even in translations on surtitles. Nevertheless, the opera was an interesting experience and I would advise every Wagnerite not to miss it if another opportunity presents itself. The audience showed in sufficient measure its appreciation, enhanced no doubt by the presence of the composer.


Karel Werner Ph.D. - Wagner's dream or Wagner's nightmare?  

from: Wagner news 206, July 2012,pp. 12-14

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