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Good Friday Magic: 'Parsifal' Round Two

The poor sales of the National Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of the third act of Wagner's Parsifal were worse than I thought. Even with the special offer of half-price orchestra tickets, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall had a shocking number of empty spaces at the second performance on Friday night. Indeed, the papering of the house was at an unheard-of extent: as I walked into the Kennedy Center on Friday evening, I overheard a Kennedy Center official offering free tickets to that evening's NSO performance to tourists visiting the building. Neither Wagner nor Parsifal was mentioned, and I did not eavesdrop long enough to see if the offer was accepted. There is no guarantee that someone walking into the Kennedy Center this evening would receive a similar offer for tonight's final performance, but there are likely some readers out there who would happily accept a free ticket.

After being seated on the left aisle for the Thursday performance, I had the chance to compare the sound on the right aisle, again at about halfway back into the house. The acoustics in the Concert Hall are notoriously variable, and from the right side, the singers seemed more present -- especially those, like Yuri Vorobiev as Gurnemanz, who stood on the right side of the podium. While Nikolai Schukoff's Parsifal, who stood on the left side, sounded about the same, it was also odd to note that the four tuned gongs in the procession scene sounded much more clearly when I was seated on the left side, perhaps because the gongs' stand was on the right side of the orchestra, facing towards the left side of the house. Whatever the reason, on Friday night the gongs were so faint as to be almost non-existent far too often.

The high quality of this performance -- perhaps not perfect but at a very high level -- and the magic of the score made the empty seats seem doubly shameful. Vorobiev's Gurnemanz was more robust on the second night, especially in the molten low notes, perhaps after some improvement if he was indeed a little under the weather, and his facial expressions, which lent great credibility and sympathy to the character were that much clearer from the right aisle. The quality of Schukoff's voice grew on me somewhat, although the role, at least to my ears, requires a sweeter tone for the transcendent Parsifal of the third act. Thomas Hampson's Amfortas was more visceral and terrifying -- the howl of despair as he longs for death -- at the first performance but still stood out from his colleagues on Friday night.

available at Amazon
W. Kinderman, Wagner's Parsifal
(Oxford University Press, 2013)
Of all the leitmotifs in Parsifal, it is the Communion theme, derived from the so-called Grundthema -- as in Tristan, Wagner maintained that everything he required compositionally was contained in the kernel of the prelude music -- that most pulls me into its tide. The tune is based on a melody Wagner heard and admired in the prelude to Franz Liszt's cantata The Bells of Strasbourg Cathedral, the so-called "Excelsior!" theme, a borrowing or adaptation that Wagner at least acknowledged. This "theft" is documented in some detail in William Kinderman's fine book Wagner's Parsifal (in Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure, and Interpretation from Oxford University Press), along with a detailed examination of the fragmentary sketches for Parsifal.

This performance will be repeated once more, tonight in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (October 12, 8 pm).

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