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Eschenbach's 'Parsifal' (Act III)

Baritone Thomas Hampson

We covered the Verdi bicentennial yesterday and will again tomorrow, with Washington National Opera's production of the Italian composer's La forza del destino. In between, we were happy to observe instead the Wagner bicentenary -- again -- which the National Symphony Orchestra marked with a performance of the third act of the German composer's final opera, Parsifal. It is a work we have not heard in Washington since the staging by the Mariinsky Theater in 2006, so it was not as long a drought as that for Tristan, but we wish we heard more Wagner in these parts than we do.

The score is a wonder, austere in many ways but also mystical, surprising, and at times truly odd. Debussy singled out a particular quality one hears in the score, which he said was a model for the orchestration he was looking for in Jeux: "that orchestral color which seems to be lit from behind." Listening to only the exaltation of Act III, without the suffering and turmoil of the first two acts, seemed a bit like cheating at times. I cannot deny that I wished Christoph Eschenbach had chosen to do a single performance this week, say on Friday night only, but of the entire score. It may have made more sense for sales, too, since the NSO box office found itself having to offer some severe discounts to avoid having a drastically empty house.

One thing that hearing only Act III did was change the musical focus of the work, which normally rests primarily on Kundry or Gurnemanz, possible more than on Parsifal according to who is in the cast. Act III alone, though, really turned on the climax of the final scene and the singing of Amfortas and the chorus of Grail knights. Again, though, this may be partially because of the casting in this case, with the Gurnemanz of Yuri Vorobiev in excellent form but perhaps flagging in the long run (repeated sips of water may indicate a slight cold or other infection). It was a great bass sound, full and present but intense and focused more than just loud. As Parsifal, tenor Nikolai Schukoff overcame a slight rustiness at first, opening up by the anointing scene with some strong high singing. It is not a particularly pretty voice, which made him less a pleasure to listen to but can also work for the guileless, rough-edged nature of the character. Natalia Kojanova was brought in for the single sung line and woe-filled screams of Kundry.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Anne Midgette review: Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ is a fine fit for NSO’s classical concert staging (Washington Post, October 11)

Philip Kennicott, Parsifal at the National Symphony Orchestra (, October 12)

Tim Smith, NSO offers sublime act from 'Parisfal' conducted by Eschenbach (Baltimore Sun, October 14)
When baritone Thomas Hampson came on as Amfortas, however, the whole evening took on a different cast, for he sang with such force in the final scene that at the moment when he rends his garment to expose the spear's wound, the sound was elemental and overpowering. He was matched by the power of the amassed men of the Washington Chorus (augmented, I noticed, by a few recognizable stringers), bringing the procession scene to a majestic, spine-tingling climax. Eschenbach, with no reason to worry about an overall timing being too long, luxuriated in the score, stretching things out past the 75 to 80 minutes normally filled by the third act. The strings were the right kind of warm and glowing, there were many great wind solos (English horn especially), and the brass brought imperious power. Wagner wanted church bells for the opera's final scene, four tuned bells (C, G, A, E) that are rung in an ostinato. Often these parts are played now on tubular bells, which doesn't quite capture the knell-like sound Wagner wanted. Eschenbach's solution, what looked like four gongs, made an exotic sound.

This program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night (October 11 and 12, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. We will bring you more thoughts on the second performance tonight.

1 comment:

Martin said...

A wonderful score. Not sold out! Shameful.