- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The visiting Kirov Opera staged its magnificent but idiosyncratic production of Richard Wagner’s final opera, “Parsifal,” Tuesday evening, transforming the stage of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House into a vast Russian cathedral punctuated with odd iconic echoes of Fritz Lang’s classic film “Metropolis.”

“Parsifal” is a strange opera, even for Wagner aficionados. Initially billed as a “festival drama,” it is, in our sense of the word, anything but. It’s essentially a stately retelling of the Easter Triduum pageant of sin, death, resurrection and redemption — loaded with allusions to the sacraments, particularly baptism and the Holy Eucharist — recast when knighthood was in flower.

Throughout the five-plus-hour performance, the composer (who wrote his own libretto) guides us through the tale of the “holy fool” Parsifal (who corresponds to the Arthurian Percival), a warrior-innocent who seems heaven-sent to redeem the sufferings of Amfortas, king of the knights who guard the Holy Grail and the spear that pierced Christ’s side on Good Friday.

By succumbing to the charms of a woman, Amfortas has lost the spear to the evil wizard Klingsor, whose parting gift is to wound the king with the weapon. The wound, like a grievous sin, will not heal. Only Parsifal proves pure enough to retrieve the spear, vanquish the wizard and bring divine order back to the knights’ sacred grove.

“Parsifal” can be confusing for modern audiences not steeped in Christian symbolism. It can be a bit off-putting for women, too, because its story line clearly underlines the early Church’s deep misogyny, attributing male virtue primarily to sexual abstinence and portraying women as sinners and seductresses.

Wagnerian opera is a deeply rewarding musical experience for those with the patience to navigate the complex leitmotifs woven into Wagner’s greatest works. Nevertheless, the repetitiousness of his poetry and painfully slow pace of storytelling can make for a long evening in an era of cell phones, video games and instant messaging. The Kirov in this production, under British stage director Tony Palmer, gives us the full monty, as it were, without cuts, making the first act stretch almost to eternity.

Nonetheless, it’s worth taking in the full measure of this opera at least once in a lifetime, for there are many musical rewards, particularly in the second act of this production, in which the composer blessedly introduces a large female chorus to the predominantly male proceedings, lightening the mood and the texture.

The sets in this production are gloomily appropriate, although costuming is a bit eccentric. Many male characters are costumed in ratty hanging garments that make them look like Pocahontas in drag. The vampirelike flower-maidens in the second act sport claws straight out of the silent film “Nosferatu.” And the villainous Klingsor, whose claws are longer still, seems to have been coiffed by the Bride of Frankenstein’s personal hairdresser.

Fortunately, this opera plays to the primary strength of a Russian company — its powerful male voices. As the wise hermit-knight Gurnemanz, bass Gennady Bezzubenkov is a standout, blasting his voice strenuously and authoritatively out over Wagner’s considerable orchestral forces (which tend to bury lower voices in the musical fabric).

As Parsifal, tenor Oleg Balashov was nearly as impressive, singing with great conviction and revealing an instrument of considerable suppleness and subtlety. Bass Nikolai Putilin (Klingsor) and baritone Evgeny Nikitin (Amfortas) also were convincing in smaller but important roles.

As the doomed Kundry, the opera’s only major female character, soprano Larissa Gogolevskaya flowered in her character’s signature appearance in Klingsor’s lair. The part is written for a flexible soprano, for it spends a good bit of time in the mezzo registers. This presented Miss Gogolevskaya with little trouble. Her long solo passages provided some of the musical highlights of the evening.

The Kirov Orchestra under Valery Gergiev provided a colorful symphonic backdrop for the singers, including the fine chorus, although some sourness was evident in the horn sections in the work’s quieter passages. Tenor Alexei Steblianko will sing the role of Parsifal during the opera’s final performance on Sunday .


WHO: The Kirov Opera

WHAT: Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

TICKETS: $40 to $200.

INFORMATION: Call 202/467-4600


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