Operation Successful, Patient Dead 

Parsifal - Illustration by Pierre MendellParsifal is an opera great, grand, glorious, weird, absurd in equal measures. Add daunting, challenging, difficult, transporting, and long. There are those whom nothing can stop from attending a performance thereof, or those who nothing can convince to endure five hours of Wagner’s final musical statement – and very little between those two extremes. Should it have been surprising – or natural – that the Kennedy Center’s Opera House was very well filled on a Tuesday evening at 6PM? Or should it have been astonishing – or expected – that it wasn’t sold out? With the Kirov and Gergiev in town, Ionarts thought it was a unique opportunity to hear and see Wagner as good as it will get. While I still think it’s a unique opportunity that ought not be missed, I am not sure witnessed anything the WNO can’t improve upon on a good day.

Parsifal is one of the most interesting operas to direct, because it offers inexhaustible material for interpretation, excavation of meaning, super-imposition of ideas that are usually buried deep within the text. It’s so complex – philosophically, psychologically, religiously, musicologically – that directors are more likely err by including too much in their setting. Bayreuth’s current Parsifal is a case in point; although Mr. Schlingensief will surely boil his overwrought production down to the essentials over the next few years. Does it go to the credit of director Tony Palmer that this Parsifal did not fall prey to too much meaning but instead suffered from the utter absence of stimulus courtesy of the staging? Or are the travelling-kit restrictions to blame? If so, the limitations and monotony of the set became painfully obvious over five hours. Turandot’s – cheap Chinese Restaurant or not – was better (for a less demanding opera), the brilliance of Boris Godunov wasn’t nearly matched. There is nothing wrong with bringing out the multiplicity of elements that are part of this opera, accentuating details, nuances, allusions that today’s audience will otherwise understand as little as the original audience did. Indeed, it might be expected.

If left with but a frame for the opera, one would expect that at least the music would be well performed, the singing be excellent. Sadly, that wasn’t so. Valery Gergiev didn’t infuse his orchestra with the enthusiasm necessary for a band to brave five hours of music, although, in their defense, they didn’t dilapidate over the course of the opera; if anything, they improved slightly. Whereas brass was the weak-spot in Turandot, the woodwinds were the culprits in Parsifal and offered the weakest performance and the greatest blunders. The synthesizer produced bell sound was a distorted, god-awful nightmare. Would it have been so difficult to rent a decent bell from the local orchestras? Oversized pasta pots would have made a better noise than whatever came out of the speakers of the Opera House. Gergiev’s interpretation was one of heft: Slow but not crawling, he enjoyed the brassy solid moments (as did his orchestra) more than anything ethereal, this Parsifal stepped confidently along with neither idiosyncratic tick nor particular character. Unlike the sugary sounding Wagner I have heard from Gergiev on the radio, he did not bother to sweeten the deal any more than necessary on Tuesday. In the Vorspiel, the overture, there was little by way of mystery but insecurity, instead.

The singing – well… it improved from act to act and ended at “good” with stops at “decent” and “modest”. All had weak moments, none were great, some better. Among the latter was Oleg Balashov’s Parsifal. Much improved from the young man who sang into the ground, chin firmly on his chest, during Mazeppa two years ago, he was consistent and good as that figure in opera that goes from Tarzan to Jesus in just under five hours. But Parsifal is not about Parsifal, as far as the singing is concerned. The opera is – granted great voices – about either Kundry or Gurnemanz or both. Gurnemanz was Gennady Bezzubenkov. He, too, turned in a solid performance with notable peaks and some lows and wobbles. I’ve heard older men sing the role with greater authority and clarity (Kurt Moll, to be specific) but in this cast he managed to stand out.
A fairly small role is that of second-Act-only Klingsor. With a amusingly evil, charmingly dark costume (Nadhezhda Pavlova), make-up and hair Nikolai Putilin (Mazeppa in that production here in D.C.) was already fetching. An excellent voice put to good use made me wish that he might actually win the grail and go on singing in the third act. Better, at any rate, than ailing Amfortas Evgeny Nikitin who, even when he found a pitch he could live with, managed only a very few moments of glory.
Kundry, finally, the real star of the opera, was a failure vocally and visually. A meek Hausfrau and odd hag, she looked and acted off-character (a fierce and wild she-beast that has enough sexyness lingering beneath the surface to seduce every knight of the order twice over). Temporarily slipping into a gown and donning some make-up for the second act didn’t turn her into a bomb-shell, either (although the right size, literally) and the suspension of disbelief worked overtime imagining that Parsifal might fall for this, after just having rejected a selection of two dozen delightful flower-maidens. At least her second act was sung infinitely better than the first in which one had to wonder what she was doing on stage, in the first place.
Pronunciation was variable, too, not only from singer to singer but moreso even from moment to moment. The Maryland Boy Choir as behind-the-scenes angels didn’t sound so much otherworldly but irresolute, the solo alto voice and the three soprano voices at the end of act one were off, the Kirov’s male chorus was one of the strong points of the performance. Assorted squires and Knights did their job, some of the flower maidens sang exquisitely in their scene that is so unlike most other Wagner; a scene where he sounds genuinely French – perhaps a touch of Delibes – and much more so than in Tannhäuser even.

The opera itself had the look of a Russian icon. The heavy frame, saturated with warm brass and gold colors, the static action, the flat plane, naively painted or heavily jewel encrusted backdrops: No individual item may have been particularly Russianesque; the over-all impression, though, very much. Grail Knights were heavily decked out in baroque armor with gold ornaments, as if they had stepped out of a Rubens with a lot of old varnish. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came to mind upon seeing Amfortas’ Sheppard-Snow-King frock, Gurnemanz became Gandalf for the third act. Kundry stepped into act two as a Castlevania dominatrix, in act three she's a very unsubtle Mary-Magdalene. The flower maidens looked like a after hours at the Papagena-convention. The concluding dove was AWOL. Still, the incense laden atmosphere, the slow procession and the literal takes of the Christian rituals gave the production a feel that had merits on its own right.

Unfortunately, a discussion of Parsifal and its plot would be beyond the scope of this article; suffice it to say (for now) that there is much juice in this Anti-Nietzschean, mother-kissing, self-castrating, Schopenhauer-distorting, Jesus-referencing, Nymphomaniac-chastizing, ‘pity-by-fire’-touting, Buddhism-influenced opera – and enough of that remained intriguing on Tuesday night, even if untouched beneath the surface. That, and of course the glorious, transforming, slow music of Wagner’s that had Nietzsche admit through his teeth that Wagner may never have done anything better. As such – having the opportunity to see a live Parsifal in Washington – was a great experience. As far as Parsifals go, it was a rather modest affair. Time permitting, I’d probably go again on Sunday, February 27th at 3PM.

Best Parsifal recordings

Recordings of Parsifal can be divided into two categories: Knappertsbusch and not-Knappertsbusch. The former are glorious and very slow and marred by less than ideal sound. The latter include some excellent contenders in various styles and generally excellent sound. Some recommended versions are: Knappertsbusch from 1951 (live - mono), 1952 (live - mono), Boulez1962 (live - stereo), (1970 - live - stereo), Kubelik (1980 - studio - stereo), Karajan (1982 - studio - stereo), Barenboim (1991 - studio - stereo).

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