To mark one of classical music’s notable bicentennials, Washington’s fall season has gotten underway with a double dose of Wagner.
First, there was “Tristan und Isolde” at the Washington National Opera in September, in which the conducting took precedence over the nice, unobjectionable staging. Thursday, the National Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach offered the last act of “Parsifal” in a concert version that dispensed with the staging altogether.
“Parsifal” is peculiarly suited to the ritualistic experience of a classical concert. It is about a group of people bound by an old tradition, clinging to life and staying alive as long as they can fix their eyes on the object they venerate (in the opera, the Holy Grail). That would seem to mean that their ideal is to live forever, growing ever more aged and anachronistic, fetishizing an object that has ever less relevance to the world around it. It doesn’t take a stage director to draw out the parallels to the classical music world; the sober tuxedos that represent standard concert wear seemed, on the men of the Washington Chorus and the three male soloists, quite costume enough.
That wasn’t intentional, of course. Nor was it intended that, though WNO’s “Tristan” ended up showcasing some wonderful conducting, the NSO’s “Parsifal” excerpt ended up presenting a more even balance between the opera’s different components. The result was what you might call a Wagner boost, a small, intense jolt of music — the act lasts for about 75 minutes — that is usually spread across a larger canvas.
A friend recently accused me of making too much of Eschenbach’s gestures in my reviews. But to my mind, you can’t talk about his conducting without them: They are not a byproduct of his interaction with the music, they are its expressive essence. Eschenbach’s great virtue is a dramatic sense of the moment, and the gestures are his physical striving to express the immensity of what the music is feeling and saying. Sometimes this means that the orchestra players sound as if they weren’t quite sure when to come in; sometimes this means that the orchestra drowns out a solo singer, be it Yuri Vorobiev, the sturdy Gurnemanz, or Nicolai Schukoff, who brought a light upper voice with a baritonal lower timbre to the role of Parsifal. And sometimes it leads to a moment of pure profundity, as when the music surged up during Parsifal’s first encounter with Gurnemanz and the particular quality of unassuagable yearning that is so much Wagner’s trademark found its full expression.
You can cast a single act of Wagner differently from how you can cast a full opera — or can you? Certainly, issues of stamina do not apply to the same degree — except for Gurnemanz, the loyal Grail retainer, who does most of the heavy lifting for the entire act. Vorobiev’s voice has a pleasant warmth, and he went about the assignment willingly, if not entirely idiomatically. He made some lovely sounds, faded a bit in places, but generally acquitted himself well.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Kundry, the sole female lead in this opera, has only two words and a couple of groans to deliver throughout the whole thing, so it represented something of a luxury to bring in a singer, Natalia Kojanova, to do it (rather than, say, a member of the Washington Chorus) — though it gave an extra and arguably essential dramatic fillip to the proceedings.
Schukoff benefited from not having had a whole opera to get through before he made his weary way onstage (his character having spent untold years roaming the world, conquering an evil sorcerer and any number of other things since Gurnemanz last saw him). The baritonal heft of the lower part of his voice was a pleasant surprise; his slender upper notes, paler in tone, were anchored by its larger firmness. His is a light voice for this role, even in this relatively short (but often powerful) act, but he imbued his characterization with dramatic conviction and brought it to life.
But it was Thomas Hampson’s Amfortas who showed everyone how it is done. Hampson was not a large-voiced singer in his prime, though his voice has been broadening and darkening over the years. But in this company, he sounded big, powerful and focused — an opera singer in truth, and even a Wagnerian one. He effectively carried the end of the evening.
The very end of the opera is hard to understand in a concert version, since it involves the magical healing of a long-open wound, a mystical vision and the apotheosis of “the Redeemer redeemed,” which some have interpreted as the anti-Semitic Wagner’s symbolic redemption of Christ for his one great failing, his Judaism. In this concert performance, Parsifal and Amfortas simply strode off the stage and left the field to the chorus, which sounded good enough to make this, perhaps, a preferable solution.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday nights.