WASHINGTON, October 11, 2103 – If it’s 2103 it must be Verdi or Wagner. The Washington National Opera launched its season last month with Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” and they’re following it this weekend with their first-ever performances of Verdi’s “Force of Destiny.”
Meanwhile, over at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, the Virginia Opera is in town this evening for two performances of Verdi’s comic masterpiece “Falstaff,” an appearance foreshadowed by Wolf Trap Opera’s chamber version of the same back in August at The Barns at Wolf Trap.
Not to be outdone, the National Symphony Orchestra is getting on the Wagner bandwagon this weekend at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, dedicating its second regular season concert to a concert performance of the third act of the composer’s valedictory opera, “Parsifal.” Thursday evening’s impressive initial performance of this moving finale was a genuine revelation to the disappointingly sparse audience that came to hear it.
“Parsifal” is an esoteric opera, even for Wagner, focused as it is on the redemptive miracle of the Holy Grail and the need for a naïve but brave and persistent hero to unlock its holy powers. In the opera, country bumpkin Parsifal turns out to be just the guy to do it. After making a fool of himself in the early going, he embarks on an uncertain quest, returning in the finale a battered, wiser, nobler, and more humble knight who’s no longer errant.
Duly vetted by the hermit Gurnemanz, who stands watch for the Grail’s repository and for the holy knights who guard it, Parsifal is able to cure the incurable wound of Amfortas, restoring, to all who serve, sublime peace, harmony, and spiritual union with the divine, as all join once more in sharing the Beatific Vision.
This is deeply religious and philosophical territory for grand opera, as it focuses on the almost Zen-like inner spirit of ancient Christianity. But it’s also Wagner at his most intellectually and musically thoughtful. The music here focuses more on the uplifting sensuousness and inner sense of human longing rather than the pageantry of it all—which in a staged performance can indeed be most impressive.
Taking this approach, the composer succeeded in carrying his rather abstract finale into the realm of the sublime—precisely what the NSO, soloists, and chorus were also able to accomplish—magnificently, we might add—under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, who knew exactly where to take the proceedings, serving almost in the manner of a high priest or bishop presiding over a sacred ritual.
The NSO played nearly flawlessly throughout the entirety of this roughly 80-minute act. Played without pause, it was the only item on the program—an excellent choice as any added musical tidbit surely would have broken the mood. At times, the orchestra’s performance reminded us of the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of George Szell in a past age, sounding as if it were a single, unified instrument rather than an ensemble of individual musicians.
The strings were notable for their deep, woody richness of tone. The brass sections, largely but not entirely subdued in this act, accentuated the moments of high drama brilliantly. And, at key moments, haunting addition of the rarely heard, gong-like bass chimes added an almost spooky, incense-filled, medieval aura of the afterlife to the processionals.
Although Wagner’s chorus does not take part in this act until its final moments, the fine work of the Washington Chorus added a welcome power and richness to the conclusion. Entries were excellent as was this ensemble’s diction, something that choral groups occasionally neglect.
The NSO’s choice of singers was also most fortunate. The lion’s share of the evening’s work went to Russian bass Yuri Vorobiev, who sang the lengthy role of Gurnemanz, whose job it is in the finale to set the scene, to serve as the astonished greeter of an unexpected hero, and then to prepare that hero, Parsifal, for his redemptive mission to the Grail Community. Mr. Vorobiev’s deep, authoritative voice, calling up near visual images of the sights and sounds of the Russian Orthodox liturgy, was a near-perfect match that suited the solemn conclusion of an ancient and sacred tradition.
As Parsifal, Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff gets less to do in this act than Gurnemanz, but was notably successful in doing so. The English poet William Blake imagined the human journey to begin with innocence, to be shattered by the sorrows of experience, and then to be rebuilt into an informed joy and fresh innocence borne out of that experience.
We meet Parsifal in this act at precisely the moment when his spiritual transfiguration occurs. Mr. Schukoff grasped the essence of this moment, and, as the act proceeded to its conclusion, his vocal approach evolved to suit. Beginning tentatively and almost fearfully, his voice proceeded through understanding, eventually gaining conviction and authority, as he understood his final mission to be the redemptive cure of Amfortas and the community even as he ascended to become their new king.
Mr. Schukoff’s is a clarion clear tenor that, at the outset, still radiated a relative sense of innocence. But as matters proceeded, the darkness of his lower range became dominant, adding a different, almost unexpected, masculine sense of real authority to his persona—a phenomenal dramatic effect, particularly in an act presented without costuming, props, or scenery.
Last but certainly not least among the three key soloists in this act was American baritone Thomas Hampson as the despairing Amfortas. His role dominates the final third of this act before Parsifal returns to redeem him bringing blessed relief at last to his suffering. Tall and imposing, Mr. Hampson brought a powerful, dark, engulfing gloom to this role, and his time on stage proved genuinely electrifying, yet moving at the same time.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Hampson will be moving on soon to sing the role of Amfortas in a complete and fully staged “Parsifal” at the Chicago Lyric Opera. After his performances here, we can confidently assure Lyric Opera patrons that their Amfortas will not disappoint.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
Friday and Saturday performances (October 11 and 12) of NSO’s concert version of “Parsifal,” Act III, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall remain. For tickets and further information, visit the NSO area of the Kennedy Center website, or call the box office: 800-444-1434 or 202-467-4600.
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