Valery Gergiev really ought to take a different Russian Christian-name: Modeste. What this undeniably great conductor achieved with the most empowering, understated direction in Wagner’s epic ‘Parsifal’ at Symphony Hall on Good Friday was nothing short of breathtaking, and yet, in the face of a huge standing ovation, he stood self-effacingly to one side, quietly smiling at a job superlatively done, as others took the applause.
His command over his St Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre forces over these six hours (I’m including the probable team-talks during the two intervals) was impressive, and certainly due at least in part to the remarkable empathy between the splendid orchestra and chorus and their conductor.
Pacing of Wagner’s huge paragraphs was judiciously shaped, allowing all the detail of the score’s imagery to tell, beginning at the very start, when a Prelude so slow in its unfolding that many orchestras and conductors would have found it impossible to sustain brought us all the anguished keening of a solo trumpet -- recalled at the very end when the trumpet emerges again, but now piercing with the transcendence of redeeming salvation.
So – responsive, myriad-toned orchestra, a chorus whose size enabled the most ethereal recessing of dynamics, and a hall whose acoustic and spatial resources (the setting of the acoustic-chamber doors constantly changing -- Gergiev knows this hall so well) added their spectacular assistance (an offstage contingent from Jeffrey Skidmore’s Ex Cathedra sounded positively sacramental in this opera whose whole theme is the healing power of the Holy Grail from the Last Supper).
Avgust Amonov managed what he could make of the thankless, pallid title-role of Parsifal, the “perfect fool” who is actually totally wet. Amonov’s body-language (including turning his back on the audience to sing to the Flower Maidens ranged at the back, and sitting restlessly when not participating) obviously indicated he would have been more comfortable in a fully-staged opera-house production.
Larisa Gogolevskaya was absolutely stunning as the Mary Magdalene-like Kundry, deploying a gamut of voices to convey a range of tormented emotions, and leaving the stage looking understandably drained. The sonorously-voiced Yuri Vorobiev was a totally authoritative, constantly involved Gurnemanz, pleasingly less of the major-domo fusspot he can appear onstage, Yevgeny Nikitin played the mortally-sinful Amfortas as less of a whinger, more of a bitter repentant, and Nikolay Putilin was genuinely fear-evoking as the self-castrated sorcerer Klingsor.
Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ is obviously ‘Parsifal’-inspired, as this presentation so often reminded. It would be so wonderful to hear this English masterpiece performed by these Russian forces.