- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2000

The Washington Opera flawlessly executes its brilliantly conceived production of Richard Wagner's "Parsifal."

This "Parsifal" will be very hard to top. It boasts imaginative sets; a first-string cast of Wagner heavies, led by Artistic Director Placido Domingo in the title role; and an orchestra that gives the performance of its life under the baton of Music Director Heinz Fricke.

First performed in 1882, "Parsifal" was Wagner's last opera. It stands as a crowning achievement of his art but is not always the easiest of his works to comprehend.

"Parsifal," based on the Grail legends, is Wagner's murky attempt to grapple with the hero's cosmic quest for redemption in a sinful universe. Wagner died only a few months after the opera's premiere.

Parsifal ("Percival" in English) first appears as a bumbling moron who shoots one of King Amfortas' favored swans just for the heck of it. But Parsifal is a "holy fool," the innocent descendant of a slain knight who is prophesied to redeem the knights who still guard the Holy Grail. Only he can rescue the Holy Spear, which pierced Christ's side, from the evil sorcerer Klingsor, who stole it from the knights' now gravely wounded king, Amfortas.

As the story develops, the knights are losing their power to protect the Holy Grail since they and Amfortas have succumbed to temptations of the flesh. Only the pure Parsifal, who cannot be seduced by women, can redeem these fallen warriors.

In "Parsifal," Wagner's signature leitmotifs are condensed to one or two that sinuously shape-shift throughout the evening. This is late Wagner at his most enigmatic, as he searches for new tonalities and points to the direction new music will take in the next century.

As with Gustav Mahler in his ninth and unfinished 10th symphonies, Wagner's final work marks the end of the line for Romanticism. It paved the way for the dissonances of Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky and the 12-tone row of Arnold Schoenberg.

Most modern opera audiences, however, care little for cosmology and the academic nuances of historical music criticism. They come to a Wagner opera to hear heroic singing, and they'll get nearly five hours of it in this production.

The title role of Parsifal is an odd one for a tenor. Wagner's hero starts out pretty much as a lout, and the role is not a star vehicle in the sense that Jules Massenet's "Le Cid" was last year. Although a great celebrity, Mr. Domingo understates this role, yet sings it magnificently. He carries with him his wealth of musical understanding and a real feeling for his enigmatic character.

Mr. Domingo has evolved smoothly from his signature roles in Italian dramatic opera into a first-rate Wagnerian tenor. The transformation is astonishing, and yet it seems natural for the greatest and most versatile tenor of our times.

An industrial-strength cast of supporting singers backs up Mr. Domingo. In the role of the sage knight Gurnemanz, veteran Wagnerian bass Matti Salminen turns in a powerful, sustained performance. His phrasing and diction are incredible, and his resonant instrument cuts through the thick orchestral chaos with an authority few basses can muster.

Equally impressive is bass-baritone Alan Held in the difficult role of Amfortas. Mr. Held expressed his intentions to this writer in the late 1980s, when he was singing with the Wolf Trap Opera Company, to evolve into a Wagnerian heldenbaritone (heroic baritone). Clearly he has fulfilled his ambitions as he regularly interprets Wagnerian roles around the world with his smooth, flexible and well-supported voice.

Mr. Held's Amfortas is a paradox, both forceful and expressive. He cannot save himself, but he has the will to hold out until he can pass the torch to another. It is an ungrateful role, requiring power and weakness, and Mr. Held's interpretation is right on the mark.

Soprano Karen Huffstodt performs the role of sinner-temptress Kundry, a cursed creature and a sexual predator who brings knights to their doom while longing for the redemption that will bring her the peace of death. Miss Huffstodt flowers in her huge Act II scenes in which she mood-swings between vampirism — as in her savage kiss of Parsifal — and sincere penitence. A strikingly beautiful singer with tons of strawberry tresses, Miss Huffstodt possesses a massive yet elegantly sculpted voice, and she gives a dementedly brilliant, over-the-top performance.

Baritone Sergei Leiferkus, who performs the smaller role of the villain Klingsor and was Scarpia in last year's production of "Tosca," acquits himself admirably. A hat tip as well to the fabulous chorus. Even its offstage numbers are perfectly synched, and the disembodied voices add to the otherworldly feel of the staging.

The Flower Maidens also are quite effective, from their creepy appearance beneath the bowels of Klingsor's castle to their vampirelike attack on Parsifal. A medieval, misogynistic streak clearly runs through this opera, and director Roberto Oswald emphasizes it with taste and subtlety.

The Washington Opera Orchestra under Mr. Fricke has rarely played better. "Parsifal" is a grueling work for any ensemble. But the orchestra is tight and consistent throughout, sounding, even in its most massive moments, like an expressive chamber ensemble.

Quibbles? A couple, but barely worth squawking about. Again, the audience has to put up with a translucent scrim during the entire opera. For once, though, it mostly works, since the opera is a kind of spiritual dream. Klingsor's costume makes him look, rather unintentionally, like an intergalactic Ming the Merciless. Neither of these is a show stopper, however.

So if you can get tickets to this fabulous production, by all means do so. But bring a snack and a thermos of coffee. It's a long night.

WHAT: The Washington Opera's production of Richard Wagner's "Parsifal," sung in German with English surtitlesWHERE: The Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWWHEN: 1:30 p.m. tomorrow and 6 p.m. Wednesday and Nov. 18, 21 and 24TICKETS: $63 to $234PHONE: 202/295-2400

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