Birmingham Hippodrome

2013 is yielding a veritable embarrassment of riches for Wagner-lovers, but WNO's staging of the late Jonathan Harvey's meditative Wagner Dream has to be one of the most mesmerising and thought-provoking contributions to the bicentenary celebrations to date.

This all-too-short run was a first in many respects: though the score received its concert premiere in Luxembourg in 2007, Pierre Audi's new production (which opened just last week in Cardiff) is the first-ever theatrical staging of the work, and also the first time that the 'Dream' itself has been sung in Pali (the original language of the Buddhist fable at the heart of the work) rather than in English.

The work is essentially a chamber-opera within a melodrama: set in Venice, on the final day of the composer's life, it opens with a furious row between Wagner and his long-suffering wife Cosima regarding the imminent arrival of a young actress who may or may not have been Wagner's last illicit lover.

The composer suffers a heart-attack, during which he has a vision of the Buddhist opera which he had always dreamt of writing.

The music (performed by a crack team of on-stage singers and players and mixing live electronics with Buddhist chant and Harvey's trademark angular lyricism) makes only the most fleeting references to Wagner's own, yet the dramatic themes of transcendence, immolation and redemption resonate throughout.

The central performances are uncommonly strong: Gerhardt Brossner portrays the composer with exactly the right mixture of irascible imperiousness and insecurity, whilst Karin Giegerich can switch from hellcat indignation to genuine tenderness in an instant as the beleaguered Cosima.

In the dream-world, Robin Tritschle responded to the gentle romanticism of Ananda's music with plangent tone and textual sensitivity as well as taking Harvey's often vertiginous vocal lines completely in his stride. If Claire Booth occasionally sounded a little more pushed as the impassioned Pakati (the role has the high tessitura of a Lulu, interspersed with episodes of low-lying declamatory singing) it seemed entirely in service of the character, and her narration of the unlikely flowering of love between a young girl and an old vagrant was absolutely spell-binding.

The three low male roles were also taken with aplomb: Richard Wiegold was impassive and sonorous as the mysterious spirit-guide Vairochana, Richard Angas made much of the rather one-dimensional role of the angrily misogynist Old Brahmin and the ever-excellent David Stout radiated compassion and authority as Buddha himself.

Wagner Dream is a complex, often unsettling but profound experience in the theatre, and a real front-runner in the context of contemporary music-drama. Its curious hybridity and unapologetic mysticism may lack the visceral impact of other recent works like The Minotaur or Written on Skin, but Harvey's late work is rich and strange indeed: fingers crossed for a revival, and hopefully a DVD release.

- Katherine Cooper