No one ever suggested Wagner was bipolar, but he himself was acutely conscious of the polarities in his psychological make-up – a guilty carnality and a non-conformist quest for spiritual wisdom. This dual preoccupation with sex and the sacred is hardly unique to the master of Bayreuth. What was exceptional was his capacity to work out its tensions in a long, slow music-drama that simultaneously mystifies and fascinates almost everyone who experiences it.
Parsifal, Wagner’s last testament, is ostensibly loaded with the sin-and-salvation symbolism of Christianity, but it also hints at a more open-ended kind of spiritual journeying, reflecting the composer’s interest in Buddhism in his later years. If its Easter associations are a false trail, the words – a mixture of myth and religious mumbo-jumbo – offer scant enlightenment. The music, its numinous glow and calming resolutions, is what renders all the woolly ambiguities palatable. More than that, any half-decent performance induces a sense of contemplative wellbeing in the listener who is prepared to sit for four hours.
All of this is relevant to Valery Gergiev’s concert with the soloists, chorus and orchestra of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. More than half-decent, it was seriously impressive, reflecting the close acquaintanceship Gergiev’s ensemble has developed with this work since they chose it in the mid-1990s as the first Wagner to be performed in Russia in more than 60 years. Compared with their previous London rendition more than a decade ago, their stylistic assurance has advanced hugely, to the point where most of the words are now enunciated in proper German, not least from a lively sextet of Flowermaidens: a bouquet to the uncredited language coach.
At the Barbican the chorus did not sound as entrancing as it does in the Parsifal recording Gergiev recently made in St Petersburg, but the distinguishing factor in any Mariinsky performance has always been the orchestra, playing as one instrument. Their dark, fruity tone and the subtlety of their trumpet and woodwind principals, blending so sympathetically with the overall texture, are especially well suited to the soft colours Wagner chose for Parsifal, and the Good Friday music duly cast its spell.
In the title role Avgust Amonov sang with the right vocal heft but spent most of the evening buried in his score, and his entrances and exits indicated zero stage experience of the part – in stark contrast to the other soloists. Larisa Gogolevskaya’s doughty Kundry brought the Act Two drama to life: her mezzo may not be beautiful but it is imposing – and would be more so with better diction. Yury Vorobiev’s youthful but authoritative Gurnemanz radiated gravitas – a Russian bass of high intelligence – while Evgeny Nikitin’s Amfortas metaphorically shook the audience with his anguished “Erbarme!” (Mercy). Both he and Nikolay Putilin’s clarion Klingsor would ennoble any stage.
Gergiev’s tempos were flexible but consistent: his inspiring, symbiotic relationship with his Mariinsky colleagues remains a vindication of what the west has regrettably lost – the good, old-fashioned ensemble principle.