National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach
(Margot Schulman)

The Wagner bicentennial, marked by opera houses and orchestras all over the place for 10 months now, is still going strong. The latest example in our region was the National Symphony Orchestra's presentation of Act 3 from "Parsifal" in concert form with a stellar ensemble of soloists and the first-rate Washington Chorus.

I caught Friday night's performance at the Kennedy Center and would have gladly gone back the next night for a second dose of musical redemption, if it hadn't been for a new production at Washington National Opera.


You do not have to buy into the religiosity of "Parsifal" to be moved by the story of the "fool" who discovers himself and his calling to save the Holy Grail. There is tremendous dramatic weight in his journey and how he affects the lives of everyone he meets -- the seductive Kundry, the ever-bleeding Amfortas, the knight-turned-hermit Gurnemanz.

And, of course, there is the glory of the music, which can carry the listener upward, with the characters in the opera, toward some higher plane.

NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach is, above everything else, a spiritual artist. He can get deep inside a score and find not just its heart, but its soul. That he did on Friday, conducting with a refined sense of pacing and dynamics.

The act unfolded in a single arc, held together by an underlying tension that, in the final measures, yielded to an extraordinary, radiant calm. Even at his very spacious pacing, the performance never felt draggy. I was especially impressed with how the conductor shaped the crescendo passages during the roughly 80-minutes so that each one had more visceral impact than the last.

All the while, Eschenbach had the NSO playing at a high level. There were exquisite phrases from the woodwinds, silken sounds from the strings, admirable warmth from the brass.

That rich orchestral fabric supported three singers who got fully into their characters.

In the title role, Nikolai Schukoff (pictured in thumbnail) offered superb musicality, relishing every syllable of text and sculpting phrases with great eloquence. Any dryness in the tone or effort in the highest notes meant little in light of the tenor's valiant vocalism.

As Gurnemanz, Yuri Vorobiev used his beautifully balanced bass to communicate with a mesmerizing mix of tenderness and intensity. The baritone Thomas Hampson likewise sang nobly and affectingly as the afflicted, conflicted Amfortas.

The chorus, prepared by Julian Wachner, summoned terrific sonic waves. Chorister Natalia Kojanova provided Kundry's moans and few words at the beginning of the act.