In program notes, Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, calls Parsifal “the culmination of Wagner’s work”. For his orchestra’s recent celebration of Wagner’s bicentennial at the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach programmed a concert performance of Act III of the composer’s final opera: the culmination of the culmination, one could say.

Christoph Eschenbach © Eric Brissaud
Christoph Eschenbach
© Eric Brissaud

One could also say that by offering only Parsifal’s transcendent conclusion, the evening felt oddly telescoped and an incomplete experience of Wagnerian ritual: resolution without conflict, reconciliation without division, redemption without the fall. Without patiently enduring – and on some occasions, suffering – over four hours of music drama, has the audience truly earned the healing touch of the spear and the restoration of holy communion?

Musically, too, the evening delivered a less than idiomatic account of Wagner’s score. Wagner once described the music for Parsifal as having the shimmer of silk. Subtle fluctuations of tempi and orchestral color are paramount to the composer’s conception. Under Eschenbach’s baton, the score emerged more like a patchwork quilt, with thick textures, deliberate phrasing, rough-hewn transitions, and unrefined balances. Eschenbach tended to aggressively spotlight melodic lines in the orchestra, at the expense of subtlety and finesse, and frequently overpowered his singers.

Eschenbach also heavily sculpted individual phrases and built to certain climaxes but without consistent attention to the long, underlying Wagnerian line. This absence of sustained inner concentration in the orchestra, particularly in the opening scene, lent a certain distance and coldness to the proceedings. Meanwhile, a passage like the Transformation Music, which Eschenbach took much care to mold to a powerful climax, verged on bombast. Only in the Good Friday Music and the concluding passages of the opera did the orchestra prove fully persuasive, with a flowing lyricism that swept all before it.

In the concert setting, the singers were limited to gestural acting and slow, ritualized entrances and exits – not incongruous for the occasion. With only a single sung line, Natalia Kojanova, the Washington Chorus member portraying Kundry, was consigned to a far corner of the stage. The Washington Chorus, well prepared by Julian Wachner, performed its duties with grandeur and sensitivity.

In the crucial role of Gurnemanz, Yuri Vorobiev, a singer at St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre and disciple of Valery Gergiev, made a slight impression, his slender bass too often swallowed up by the orchestra. While delivering some good isolated moments, Vorobiev generally failed to sustain dramatic interest in his long vocal passages. Nikolai Schukoff brought a lightweight voice, by the standards of Wagnerian days gone by, to the role of Parsifal. While occasionally sounding strained in his upper register and scooping for top notes, the Austrian tenor nonetheless sang with intelligence and strong dramatic instincts.

The evening truly belonged, though all too briefly, to the great Thomas Hampson, who brought rare nobility, poetic insight, expressive point, and compelling drama to the role of Amfortas. From his entrance in the final scene, Hampson commanded the stage and delivered the most powerful and viscerally thrilling singing of the evening. Hampson’s lyric baritone, in near peerless form, colored the text with anguish and pathos, dignity and authority, and a poignant resignation and longing for death. For Hampson’s sake alone, one wished that Eschenbach and the NSO had programmed a full-length Parsifal, in order to experience the full tragic stature of the wounded King – and the complete cycle of Wagnerian musical ritual, from earthly suffering to ecstatic deliverance.

***11