Parsifal at the National Symphony Orchestra

 photo (1)   If Parsifal feels blasphemous, it’s because Wagner appropriates and repurposes basic Christian tropes with the same abandon as he uses myth and legend in earlier works, and his own biographical details in his lifelong project of self-promotion. Elemental Christian motives are sliced and diced with the same dizzying freedom as his constantly reconfigured musical material. It’s as if Christianity is a grab bag of ideas and themes–redemption, forgiveness, sin, saintliness–just like any other grab bag of possibilities. There’s nothing sacred here, just material, to be deployed for maximum emotional response.
    But there is a sacred aura, and if Wagner is making some kind of elaborate joke on Christianity, this tremendously moving aura of grave dignity and solemn purpose is the punch line. Music, the composer seems to be saying, can redeem Christianity, can in fact be more Christian than Christianity, can move people and transport them to a spiritual mood more effectively than the smells and bells of actual Christian ritual. Wagnerism trumps theology.
    The pompousness of the story, and its general confusion, tempts one to tune out the narrative and symbolic drama. Nietzsche’s rage against work almost seems to miss the point. Just forget about what’s happening on stage, and listen to the music. The grail, the spear, the redeemer, the holy fool, these are nothing more than narrative leitmotives, to be played in multiple iterations, now fast, now slow, now darkened or transposed. You aren’t meant to think about them too much.
    At least, that’s the way one lover of Parsifal understands the paradox of its power and pretentiousness.
    The National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, performed Act III of Parsifal this weekend at the Kennedy Center. It was a concert performance, and that felt like a luxury. Wagner’s incessant recapitulation almost makes Acts I and II unnecessary (there goes a reference to Klingsor, there’s the prelude, there’s Kundry’s desperate, plunging cry). It’s still a 90-minute drama, enough time to enter into the spell of the piece, but without the five-hour commitment of sitting through the whole spectacle (which I have done many times, and will do again, though always with the same trepidation as boarding an economy-class flight to Asia).
    I enjoyed the performance very much. Eschenbach’s approach felt like Wagner seen through the prism of Bruckner, smooth and solid, building over long periods to titanic climaxes, but mostly free of the moment by moment details others conductors prioritize. In the opera house, Act III begins with a genuine sense of exhaustion, both dramatically on stage (the realm of the Grail is falling to pieces) and in the audience, who have already heard several hours of music. Eschenbach helped listeners enter into that sense of spiritual weariness by keeping the introduction almost flat in affect, letting it play itself, rather than highlighting its dissonant melodic contours and anguished tritones.
    But the evening built, to the magnificent procession that leads to the final unveiling of the Grail, and to the arrival of Thomas Hampson as Amfortas. I don’t remember Hampson sounding this good in years. It’s a thrill to hear him singing so well, so commandingly. Perhaps Amfortas shouldn’t sound so robust, but musically, it was compelling. Yuri Vorobiev sang Gurnemanz. It wasn’t the all-powerful approach of Kurt Moll (years ago) or Rene Pape (more recently). But it worked, and Vorobiev even managed to capture not just the calm forbearance of the character, but a taste of his holier-than-thou, churlish side, too. He was sometimes covered by the orchestra, but his voice is a rich, caramel-colored instrument that blended very well with the lower brass and strings. And tenor Nikolai Schukoff managed to finesse a relatively small instrument, giving us an ardent, but wounded Parsifal, even without the full resources of a heldentenor.
    It’s a pleasure to hear the NSO sounding so good. If only they had a chance to regularly play in a hall with more resonance, I think we might be hearing talk of a resurgent orchestra, finally coming into its own. I’d like to hear them in Carnegie.

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2 Comments

Filed under Music, Opera, Orchestral

2 responses to “Parsifal at the National Symphony Orchestra

  1. Gerald Perman

    Dear Philip This is the best appraisal of the Wagnerian mystique ever, thanks. I never could comprehend the texts and finally gave up trying, just enjoying the music when ably performed. Even so, I have always argued that some cuts could be made without doing mischief.

    Gerry

  2. Douglas E. Gill

    Saw both the Thurs and Fri performances. Eschenbach’s and orchestra’s committed execution was superb. It was the choreography of the exits and entrances of the soloists that hurt. Why did Parsifal and Gurnemanz exit in opposite directions, and Kundry not join with them for their guided walk to Monsalvat? Why didn’t Gurnemanz and Kundry come in with Parsifal for the final scene, as the text instructs? I think playing the Overture before the full 3rd Act performance would have set the stage effectively.

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