Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky Theatre Chorus and Symphony Orchestra
26 February 2006
Kennedy Center Washington
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasJewgeni Nikitin
TiturelMichail Petrenko
GurnemanzGennadi Bezzubenkow
ParsifalAlexei Steblianko
KlingsorNikolai Putilin
KundryLarisa Gogolievskaya
GralsritterAndrei Iljuschnikow
Eduard Tsanga
Washington Post

The Kirov’s ‘Parsifal’: Russo-Profundo

If “Die Meistersinger” is the Wagner opera for non-Wagnerians, “Parsifal” is the one for true believers. Uninitiated opera-goers can find “Parsifal’s” daunting length and glacial pace, its half-digested Buddhism and quasi-Christian sanctimony a form of unspeakable torture. But those under the composer’s spell understand the work’s hypnotic pull and cathartic power — not to mention its sheer gorgeousness.

There is much to admire in the Kirov Opera’s current production, which opened at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday and plays a final performance there Sunday afternoon. Not least of its attractions is Valery Gergiev’s conducting of a score he clearly loves and understands deeply. The conductor takes a break from his high-octane persona here, drawing tender, luminous sound from his players. Gergiev ensures that the music presses urgently forward when it needs to, but shows a welcome (and unaccustomed) connection to the stillness in Wagner’s writing.

If his cast lacks the same degree of subtlety, they make a vocally strong team that understands the piece. Phrasing is idiomatic, the German intelligible, and — with one key exception — there is no lack of vocal carrying power. That exception, unfortunately, is tenor Oleg Balashov’s Parsifal, the initially callow, increasingly messianic hero of the story. Balashov has a lovely voice, but seems afraid to let it out, clamping down every time it seems ready to blossom. (Alexei Steblianko will perform the part at Sunday’s performance.)

Not surprisingly, it’s the lower male voices that impress the most. Much of “Parsifal” is dominated by deep voices, and the Kirov has filled significant roles with three of its starriest singers: Gennady Bezzubenkov as the elder Grail Knight, Gurnemanz; Evgeny Nikitin as the Knights’ ailing leader, Amfortas; and Nikolai Putilin as the sorcerer Klingsor. All possess powerful, fine-grained instruments, and use them intelligently, acting well through their voices.

Larissa Gogolevskaya has the unenviable task of making the character of Kundry into a believable flesh-and-blood creation. Little more than an animal in Act 1, she must transform into a temptress in Act 2 and a repentant Mary Magdalene figure in Act 3 — a hat trick few mezzo-sopranos have been able to pull off. Gogolevskaya throws herself bravely into the role, thrilling with her punchy chest-voice early in the opera, and rendering her more soft-spoken lines in the seduction scene with great beauty and dignity. Elsewhere, any canny interpretative ideas get steamrolled by sheer lung power, razor-edged high notes and uncomfortable shifts between vocal registers.

A young and unusually pretty set of Flower Maidens sing with enough Slavic edge to suggest menace, and enough limpid tone to complement the proto-impressionist haze of sound Wagner creates in their scene. And, in refreshing contrast to the principal singers, the Maidens seem able to act without marching downstage, staring down the conductor, thrusting their arms out to the audience and letting loose their voices.

Stage director Tony Palmer doesn’t help matters. Granted, “Parsifal” is no walk in the park for a director. Wagner may have based his story in Arthurian legend, but the piece is really about evolving states of spiritual being. Try staging that! Palmer does try, by having rows of choristers file back and forth around the stage, hit their marks and stand at attention, as if some unseen platoon leader were ordering them about.

Far more striking than what the singers are doing in this Kirov production is what they’re wearing. Reimagining the medieval Spanish setting of the opera as medieval Russia, Palmer has had costume designer Nadezhda Pavlova outfit the cast in fur boots, squared-off hats, belted tunics and patchwork capes, the men’s hair braided down their backs or bobbed into Buster Brown bowl-cuts. Set designer Yevgeny Lysyk follows suit with a jewel-encrusted, Russian Orthodox-influenced Hall of the Grail, but then veers off into 1960s abstraction, Asian watercolor and mid-20th-century surrealism. Lighted in Day-Glo colors, the stage picture teeter-totters between the magically beautiful and the truly hideous.

Somehow the crazed, kitschy, retro sets say “Kirov Opera” as authentically as the echt-Russian costumes and provincial notions of acting. But turn your ear to what Gergiev is accomplishing in the pit, and the sound these singers are producing onstage, and you’ll appreciate how vital, and how truly international, a company this is.

Joe Banno | February 23, 2006

Washington Times

Wagner fully expressed by Kirov

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.

T. L. Ponick | February 22, 2006

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 335 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Tony Palmer