The Kirov's 'Parsifal': Russo-Profundo

The Kirov Opera's
The Kirov Opera's "Parsifal" ends its run Sunday at the Kennedy Center. (By Valentin Boronovsky)
By Joe Banno
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 23, 2006

If "Die Meistersinger" is the Wagner opera for non-Wagnerians, "Parsifal" is the one for true believers. Uninitiated opera-goers can find "Parsifal's" daunting length and glacial pace, its half-digested Buddhism and quasi-Christian sanctimony a form of unspeakable torture. But those under the composer's spell understand the work's hypnotic pull and cathartic power -- not to mention its sheer gorgeousness.

There is much to admire in the Kirov Opera's current production, which opened at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday and plays a final performance there Sunday afternoon. Not least of its attractions is Valery Gergiev's conducting of a score he clearly loves and understands deeply. The conductor takes a break from his high-octane persona here, drawing tender, luminous sound from his players. Gergiev ensures that the music presses urgently forward when it needs to, but shows a welcome (and unaccustomed) connection to the stillness in Wagner's writing.

If his cast lacks the same degree of subtlety, they make a vocally strong team that understands the piece. Phrasing is idiomatic, the German intelligible, and -- with one key exception -- there is no lack of vocal carrying power. That exception, unfortunately, is tenor Oleg Balashov's Parsifal, the initially callow, increasingly messianic hero of the story. Balashov has a lovely voice, but seems afraid to let it out, clamping down every time it seems ready to blossom. (Alexei Steblianko will perform the part at Sunday's performance.)

Not surprisingly, it's the lower male voices that impress the most. Much of "Parsifal" is dominated by deep voices, and the Kirov has filled significant roles with three of its starriest singers: Gennady Bezzubenkov as the elder Grail Knight, Gurnemanz; Evgeny Nikitin as the Knights' ailing leader, Amfortas; and Nikolai Putilin as the sorcerer Klingsor. All possess powerful, fine-grained instruments, and use them intelligently, acting well through their voices.

Larissa Gogolevskaya has the unenviable task of making the character of Kundry into a believable flesh-and-blood creation. Little more than an animal in Act 1, she must transform into a temptress in Act 2 and a repentant Mary Magdalene figure in Act 3 -- a hat trick few mezzo-sopranos have been able to pull off. Gogolevskaya throws herself bravely into the role, thrilling with her punchy chest-voice early in the opera, and rendering her more soft-spoken lines in the seduction scene with great beauty and dignity. Elsewhere, any canny interpretative ideas get steamrolled by sheer lung power, razor-edged high notes and uncomfortable shifts between vocal registers.

A young and unusually pretty set of Flower Maidens sing with enough Slavic edge to suggest menace, and enough limpid tone to complement the proto-impressionist haze of sound Wagner creates in their scene. And, in refreshing contrast to the principal singers, the Maidens seem able to act without marching downstage, staring down the conductor, thrusting their arms out to the audience and letting loose their voices.

Stage director Tony Palmer doesn't help matters. Granted, "Parsifal" is no walk in the park for a director. Wagner may have based his story in Arthurian legend, but the piece is really about evolving states of spiritual being. Try staging that! Palmer does try, by having rows of choristers file back and forth around the stage, hit their marks and stand at attention, as if some unseen platoon leader were ordering them about.

Far more striking than what the singers are doing in this Kirov production is what they're wearing. Reimagining the medieval Spanish setting of the opera as medieval Russia, Palmer has had costume designer Nadezhda Pavlova outfit the cast in fur boots, squared-off hats, belted tunics and patchwork capes, the men's hair braided down their backs or bobbed into Buster Brown bowl-cuts. Set designer Yevgeny Lysyk follows suit with a jewel-encrusted, Russian Orthodox-influenced Hall of the Grail, but then veers off into 1960s abstraction, Asian watercolor and mid-20th-century surrealism. Lighted in Day-Glo colors, the stage picture teeter-totters between the magically beautiful and the truly hideous.

Somehow the crazed, kitschy, retro sets say "Kirov Opera" as authentically as the echt-Russian costumes and provincial notions of acting. But turn your ear to what Gergiev is accomplishing in the pit, and the sound these singers are producing onstage, and you'll appreciate how vital, and how truly international, a company this is.

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