Shrouded in mystical symbols and deep philosophical musings on the nature of carnality, faith and redemption, Wagner's Parsifal stands apart even from all his other symbol- and philosophy-laden operas.
From this tale of chaste medieval knights who guard the Holy Grail, their leader who is afflicted with a wound that will not heal and the "sinless fool" who tastes the wisdom of compassion, Wagner created something as solemn as a Passion Play (and as potentially troubling to nonbelievers). It aspires to sacred rite status, rather than mere music and drama.
The Kirov Opera's extraordinary production of Parsifal, part of the company's annual residency at the Kennedy Center, manages to deliver all the weight of a religious experience without sacrificing the theatricality of a secular one. It's a compelling demonstration of the Kirov's vocal, orchestral and visual strengths. Not a minute of Tuesday's performance -- a running time of about five hours, including two intermissions -- seemed long.
Signs of raggedness that cropped up during Sunday's presentation of Puccini's Turandot were virtually nonexistent this time. From the first, profound notes of the Prelude, it was evident that conductor Valery Gergiev was totally immersed in Wagner's world.
Throughout, tempos were judiciously measured, phrases eloquently molded. Coordination between pit and stage -- and singers positioned, celestially, in the back of the opera house for key scenes -- remained smooth.
The performance would have been memorable just for the long unveiling-of-the-Grail scene of Act 1, which reached truly majestic heights under Gergiev's careful guidance. Even the premature applause at the end of that act could not break his concentration; he just had the orchestra hold on and on to the last chord, for what seemed like a half-hour.
Wagnerian voices are never in abundant supply, but, drawing from its own ranks, the Kirov company met the challenges of Parsifal handsomely.
To be sure, Oleg Balashov did not quite measure up to the title role, his tenor a couple degrees too small for the job. But he touched the heart of the music and caught the character's transition from naivete to nobility persuasively. (Alexei Steblianko will sing the role Sunday.)
Gennady Bezzubenkov's ripe bass tired a bit as the evening progressed, but his performance as Gurnemanz, the wise old knight, nonetheless offered commanding authority of tone and phrase. Larissa Gogolevskaya dominated the stage as Kundry, the Mary Magdalene-like character whose quest for redemptive grace fuels the opera's ultimate message. The powerhouse soprano used her dark, vibrant sound to consistently incisive effect.
As the ever-ailing Amfortas, Evgeny Nikitin was sensitive, if vocally monochromatic. Nikolai Putilin made a blustery, imposing villain as Klingsor, the fallen knight. The other soloists acquitted themselves vividly. A frayed edge or two aside, the chorus and orchestra (particularly the strings and brass) did stellar work, each adding mightily to the overall sonic richness of the evening.
From the opening picture of a starry, starry night to the final communion scene, the sets created a good deal of atmosphere economically. The costumes included what looked like a cross-pollination of Russian Eskimos, Road Warrior extras and maybe a sprinkling of Star Wars.
Director Tony Palmer dealt with the slow-paced action in mostly effective fashion.
One name you won't find on the programs for the Kirov Opera's Kennedy Center residency this year -- the fourth in a decade-long association -- is Alberto Vilar, the one-time billionaire money manager and super-philanthropist who pledged tens of millions to arts organizations around the world.
The Kirov deal is just one of many projects that Vilar did not fully fund, even before his arrest last year on various fraud charges. Gergiev was one of only a handful of Vilar beneficiaries to come to his aid, contributing $500,000 toward his bail.
This year's Kirov visit is sponsored by Classic Hospitality, with support from the Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts.