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"Parsifal Saves the Day"

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
11/04/2000 -  and 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24 November, 2000
Richard Wagner : Parsifal
Placido Domingo (Parsifal), Matti Salminen (Gurnemanz), Sergei Leiferkus (Klingsor), Thomas Stewart (Titurel), Alan Held (Amfortas), Karen Huffstodt (Kundry)
Roberto Oswald (scenery), Anibal Lapiz (costumes)
Heinz Fricke (conductor)
Roberto Oswald (director)
Washington Opera Chorus

No opera other than Wagner's final masterpiece, Parsifal, asks so much of its viewer. It's about five hours long, which is no small amount of time. And it's a very restrained, deliberate work that inspired Mark Twain to remark that the first act was three hours long but he enjoyed it in spite of the singing.

The length seems exceptionally out of proportion to what’s essentially a short story--Knights of Holy Grail have lost the Holy Spear at the hands of their leader, Amfortas, who once let his guard down and was seduced by the sometimes wicked Kundry. The evil sorcerer Klingsor steals the Spear and wounds Amfortas. Guilt-ridden, Amfortas refuses to conduct the rite of the Holy Grail. The Knights wander aimlessly, waiting for the envisioned “pure fool enlightened by compassion” who will return the Spear, heal Amfortas, and rally the Knights.

Granted, if you only consider the physical nature of the work, it’s easy to see why the length could be considered out of proportion to the action. However, what’s not neat and tidy is reaction to the spiritual action. That's the tricky part, the part that resides inside each viewer. It's how much time will the viewer suspend to allow for an emotional journey to take place both on stage and in the audience. If you decide to give yourself over to the mystery of this spiritual tale of redemption, then time ceases to be a consideration.
This writer freely surrendered to the moment and allowed the methodical, slow evolution of the spirit and the spiritual journey encountered by all in the story to unfold, deliberately, as planned. The results were well rewarded in exceptional performances, superb visual imagery, and magnificent music.

Parsifal is blatantly obvious in its religious references. In fact, a former soprano, Olive Fremstad, called it “an elaborate revival meeting.” The Holy Spear, the Grail from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, concepts of redemption, Good Friday, and so on. It’s one symbolic-laden work. Suffice it to say, Roberto Oswald's design and direction make a religious-spiritual statement, the messages you can’t miss. But, it's a tasteful, not heavy-handed treatment. In fact, the viewer frequently basks in the visual elements that, when merged with the emotional score, make "Parsifal" the emotional and transporting trip it is.
Whereas static operas can drive a viewer nuts, "Parsifal's" slow steps toward redemption are appropriate. Such is the journey of a soul seeking solace.
It is to the credit of all that interest is sustained in the most stagnant moments and to the credit of all who imbue what physical action they do have with movement that contributes rather than takes away from the form and shape so carefully crafted by Roberto Oswald.
Particular notice goes to the superb soprano Karen Huffstodt, whose Kundry is caught between two worlds--that of the damned and that of the redeemed. Her Kundry is smartly done; even when not a focal point, Huffstodt has her Kundry acting or reacting to the lyrics of others, making her a compelling character and singer whose lyricism effectively portrays Kundry’s savage and repentant traits.

Placido Domingo, the company's artistic director, who portrays Parsifal, does a fine job, although one wonders if Oswald couldn't have found a bit more meaningful business for him to do at least in Acts 1 and 2. Singing-wise, Domingo proves his continuing success in tackling Wagnerian roles. This is not a star vehicle. He has a pivotal role but by no means is it meant to outshine any of the others. In this opera, Parsifal's one of the gang.
Certainly a considerable amount of star-type singing takes place with Matti Salminen, Finnish bass of renown, who sings Gurneamanz. His solid, clear, easily projected bass engulfs the listener in auditory pleasures. When he's on stage, you are focused on him; you can't help not be.
Alan Held sings a credible Amfortas, the King of the Grail who let the guys down, not to mention his father, Titurel, and himself. One senses the grief and self-imposed agony Amfortas has placed on his heart. Held's sound singing convinces us of his character's depth of conflict and concern over what he wrought by losing the Holy Spear. Russian bass Sergei Leiferkus delivers a wonderfully etched and sung portrayal of sorcerer Klingsor, whose costuming, as set against the Act II set, set a deliciously evil tone.
Heinz Fricke has found a key to success in coaching from the Washington Opera orchestra a rich, full sound easily capable of delivering the Wagnerian goods. The sound from the pit was solid, sensitive, sensuous, and seductive. Fricke led the musicians through the long, winding musical pathways with diligence and direction that was as fine as could be desired. The extended applause and notice given the orchestra by folk on the stage and in the audience indicates sincere appreciation for the job exceedingly well done.

John C. Shulson



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