We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Even when compared with the legendary egomaniacs of the 19th century, Richard Wagner took himself pretty damn seriously. He pushed that whole darkened auditorium/reverential listener schtick. He composed what he called “artworks of the future,” writing both their scores and librettos as well as directing them for the stage. He had his Bayreuth Festival Opera House built to his specifications, demanding uncomfortable wooden seats that promoted a Clockwork Orange-like attention to the proscenium—no snoozing there!—and a hidden orchestra pit to prevent distraction from what he wrought onstage.

But it is his final opera, Parsifal—which Washington Opera is currently presenting at the Kennedy Center Opera House in a production from Teatro Municipal in Santiago, Chile—that takes the cake for Olympian self-regard. Wagner deemed this five-hour-plus, Christo-pagan opus a “stage-consecrating festival play” and insisted that no other opera house but Bayreuth stage it. (No doubt he considered a weeklong overland journey from neighboring musical capitals a suitable pilgrimage to earn a pair of tickets.) For Parsifal’s premiere, Wagner the anti-Semite clashed with Wagner the practical man of the theater: He chose the great conductor Hermann Levi to lead the production but suggested that Levi be baptized a Christian. To Levi’s credit, he resisted giving Wagner a sacramental ass-whupping, and conducted—unbaptized—what he recognized to be an extraordinary piece of musical drama.

Parsifal is indeed an artwork of the future. A sweeping, meticulously nuanced symphonic tone poem with voices, it ranks as one of the most beautiful operas ever written, feeling at once as rock-solid as a Protestant hymn and as elusive as promptings from the subconscious. A culmination of the composer’s harmonic experiments in Tristan und Isolde and the Ring Cycle, Parsifal’s stream-of-consciousness style of musical narrative was to influence opera writing for—well, pretty much the entire 20th century.

With the considerable demands it makes on orchestra, chorus, soloists, and audience, Parsifal is attempted by very few opera companies. Even with respectable recent productions of The Flying Dutchman and Tristan under the troupe’s belt, Parsifal represents a quantum leap for WashOp. But the gamble has more or less paid off, particularly in musical terms.

Has this orchestra ever sounded so fine? It’s been steadily improving under Heinz Fricke’s baton, but in Parsifal, the strings have taken on a rich mahogany sheen. The brass are simply resplendent—fat and regal, the stuff of overheated medieval fantasy—and the winds are mellow and full of character. Fricke has a tendency to blaze pretty quickly through Wagner’s scores, and Parsifal is no exception: With a 6 p.m. curtain-time, audiences are sent to their cars well before 11. But Fricke’s lickety-split tempos don’t feel as raced-through as they did in Dutchman and parts of Tristan. Phrases are shapely and graceful, and although other conductors might be better at finding the mystical soul of the piece, Fricke never slights its dignity or dramatic tension.

He’s aided in his task by a (mostly) wonderful set of voices. Chief among them is Matti Salminen as the oldest full-time Grail Knight, Gurnemanz. Possessing a voice as black as tar and torrential in its power, Salminen is easily the greatest Wagnerian bass since the incomparable Gottlob Frick. Well-represented on disc and at big international houses like the Met, Salminen is best known for playing Wagner baddies. There’s definitely something of the yawning dragon in his sound (especially when encountered live), although he also suggests a fair degree of anguished remembrance and avuncular care as Gurnemanz. (Another terrific, saturnine bass, Siegfried Vogel, takes over as Gurnemanz for the later performances.)

Parsifal doesn’t sing a helluva lot in Parsifal, but what he does sing is very fitting for Plácido Domingo. Domingo’s Mediterranean lyricism, gleaming top notes—which he can still knock out with astonishing success—and mellow, baritonal color all serve this part well. Yes, he shies away from the hard German consonants in a way that labels him an outsider to the language, and an argument can be made that he’s more engaged with the meaning of the words in Italian operas. But to have this sound, this easy command of the music, is worth the idiosyncrasies.

Alan Held is stalwart and compelling as the long-suffering Grail Knight Amfortas, using his handsome, penetrating baritone to telling dramatic effect. I caught the production’s third performance, when John Marcus Bindel took over the role of the evil sorcerer Klingsor for a night. (The part is regularly sung by that specialist in oily villains, Sergei Leiferkus.) Possessing another fine, deep baritone, Bindel colored his words with skill, tapping into the character’s vein of sardonic glee. And what a pleasure to hear legendary postwar Wagner baritone Thomas Stewart—albeit as a heavily miked offstage voice—as the dying patriarch of the Grail Knights, Titurel. He’s still got that sonorous, magisterial sound, and his presence in this production should produce shivers in any Wagnerians who were conscious before the CD era.

The cast’s significant vocal liability is Karen Huffstodt, in the opera’s one significant female role, Kundry, the temptress/supplicant who barely sings in Acts 1 and 3 but pretty much owns Act 2. A soprano as young as Huffstodt should not sound like this. Her voice is large, but the vibrato has widened so dramatically that there’s no longer focus or finish to its tone. High notes are strident, there’s hoarseness in the middle range, and many low notes fail to carry. And when she tries to pull her voice back for intimate effect, it becomes spotty and unreliable. This is a sad decline in an instrument once so hale and hearty and full of promise.

Where this production tends to stumble more often than it stands tall is as a piece of theater. That’s the fault partly of director Roberto Oswald, partly of the histrionic qualities of this cast, and partly, to be frank, of old Tricky Dick himself. Wagner knew how to limn characters’ psyches in music that bypasses all conscious receptors and goes straight for the Jungian jugular. But, especially in Parsifal, revelations arrive by the slow train, and singers have to muscle their way through a throng of hokey constructs to meet them.

Parsifal is a heady and moving work about forgiveness and purging personal demons in order to reach higher spiritual planes. But, as in Tannhäuser (although with infinitely more subtlety and sophistication), Wagner pits lust against all of mankind’s highest strivings and deems the avoidance of sex as the path to transcendence. Sure, fundamentalists have been spouting that cant for ages, but Wagner was one of history’s most notorious hedonists and womanizers, and his reactionary sense of piety here smacks of disingenuousness. Given his love/hate relationship with audiences, critics, colleagues, society, parents, women, and himself, it’s tempting to see parts of Wagner in most of Parsifal’s sublimely overwrought characters: Gurnemanz, who’s seen it all and dispenses wisdom like a spiritual ATM; Amfortas, who’s caught with his pants down and gets skewered in the ribs with the same spear that wounded Christ; Parsifal, the “fool made wise through compassion,” who decides that he’s some sort of Second Coming; Klingsor, the horndog who castrates himself so the Grail Knights will accept him, then spends the rest of his life screwing them over after they say “No thanks”; even Kundry, the poster girl for madonna/whore syndrome, who lures the knights to sexual destruction, then feels kinda bad and runs around like Lassie, helping them deliver messages and fight the bad guys, and fetching needed medical supplies from halfway across the globe.

Conveying the suffering of these characters is the easy part; making grounded, believable human beings out of what are essentially big, emblematic archetypes is a tougher proposition. As an acting company, the WashOp cast is stylistically all over the map. Held’s Amfortas is the only fully fleshed character here, credible in his suffering, never losing his focus or throughline. On the other end of the spectrum is Huffstodt’s wildly over-the-top Kundry. Huffstodt’s a gorgeous woman, and she wields her mane of red hair as a weapon, a balm, a sex toy, a piece of camouflage. But her self-conscious ravings and melodramatic choreography are a lot harder to watch; they seem the stuff of silent cinema.

Domingo slogs through the first two acts looking a mite reticent and vaguely embarrassed about having to play a dimwitted teenager. But he takes on a tragic grandeur as the older Parsifal of Act 3, balancing world-weariness and aching guilt against a renewed sense of mission. Salminen’s Gurnemanz is a huge, lumbering presence, inquisitive and involved and likably gruff—when he isn’t singing, that is. When it comes time for him to start pumping out that amazing sound, he just plants his feet, sniffs out the conductor, and opens his maw.

Salminen may be one of those singers who keep singing and acting distinctly separate activities—or maybe he’s just trying to pick up a cue through the scrim. Yes, it’s another WashOp scrim show, although Oswald (who also designed the sets and lights) makes something more ethereal and painterly of this production than Piero Faggioni did of Don Quichotte. But the imagery is, unfortunately, as old as the postwar productions at Bayreuth and the Met: the cloud-swept scrim; the forest of diaphanous fabric trees; the circular platform, altar, and roundtable for the worshipping knights; the stage lit with the glow of an illuminated chalice. There’s nothing fresh here, even if it’s all quite pretty (although the feathers covering the forest suggest that the swan Parsifal shoots with an arrow in Act 1 explodes on impact).

Anibal Lapiz’s costumes for the squires and knights would do Mel Brooks proud, and the way these choristers are staged—formation drills, posing in Egyptian profile at the proscenium line, standing/kneeling/standing/kneeling/standing/

kneeling—looks like the work of a director who’s lost interest in the project. One promising moment, alas, leads nowhere. The Flower Maidens (don’t ask) emerge from underground looking buck-naked in sheer body stockings. But when they return to seduce Parsifal, they’re wearing full-length evening gowns and silk shawls. Sorta defeats the purpose. And Oswald has chosen some very pretty singers as soloists in this scene—and shuffled them together with the supers who have just appeared in body stockings. So why the extreme shift in propriety at a moment when it’s least welcome?

For a director who does so much Wagner—he also designed and staged the pretty and moderately effective Tristan at WashOp last year—Oswald is curiously free of that vision thing. CP