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Ruling Passions

Up north, Good Friday came late this year. Three daunting artworks translate Christendom’s central tragedy into music that churns in the hearer’s gut. Bach wrote two of them, the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, works that surround the telling of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion from the respective Gospels with music that stands in for us all, the awed and shocked witnesses to the drama. The third, Wagner’s Parsifal, forms a symbol-laden gloss around that drama and carries us further toward a promise of Resurrection. All three works take up a lot of time and demand comfortable seating; you can reckon your own arrival at a musical state of grace from the moment when none of them seems a minute too long. They didn’t to my ears, a couple of weeks ago: not one but both Passions at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Parsifal at the San Francisco Opera.

Oregon’s Bach Festival has just ended its 31st year: 55 events spread over 20 days, in the tidy little Beall Concert Hall on the University of Oregon campus and the 2,430-seat Hult Center downtown. I remember a visit in the early ’70s, with conductor Helmuth Rilling using what seemed like occult powers to draw fond and loving renditions of Bach cantatas out of performing forces mostly regional, enthusiastic but only semiproficient. Royce Saltzman, a local educator and Bach nut, had lured the then-little-known Rilling from Stuttgart with the chance to start a festival as bait; it was one of those lovely, rare instances of the right idea in the right place at the right time. Now Rilling, 67, commutes between Eugene and Stuttgart (with stopovers in Los Angeles, where he has been a regular guest with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra and will take the St. Matthew to the Philharmonic next April) and has made his mark worldwide. In Stuttgart he heads the Internationale Bachakademie and masterminded the 172-disc Hänssler release of the compleat Bach.

Snugly secure under the protecting aegis of the U.O.’s enterprising School of Music, the so-called Bach Festival has expanded far beyond its boundaries. Bach maintained his centrality, only proper in this anniversary year. Rilling’s St. Matthew struck a nice balance between the old-timey Big Noise — with a chorus half again too large — and a latter-day respect for momentum and overall shape. The B-minor Mass (Rilling again) was also on the agenda, as were Jeffrey Kahane’s playing of the Goldbergs, Robert Levin discoursing and playing parts of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and an ensemble version of Musical Offering. The St. John was made the project for a conducting master class, given complete but piecemeal over four afternoon concerts, each session preceded by Rilling’s beautifully thought-out spoken program notes.

Visiting choruses from Israel, Sweden, Uganda and Cuba serenaded audiences in concerts large and small, and joined conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya (whose many hats include conducting the Eugene Symphony) in the Beethoven Ninth. Other major events included Mendelssohn’s Elijah (which is, after all, sort of Bach) and an all-day “Composers Symposium” with Third Angle, a new-music group from Portland, playing some works from a student-composer master class and some big pieces by wise old Lou Harrison, onstage beaming his approval. Add to these wonders a couple of evenings with the astonishing art of Thomas Quasthoff: a song recital of Mozart and Debussy — shared with a marvelous German new- comer, soprano Juliane Banse, and with Justus Zeyen’s shrewd and loving piano collaboration — and another kind of recital that included a Sinatra tribute and some solid, loving jazz with a combo.

Rilling had brought Quasthoff to Eugene in 1995 for his American debut, and he has returned nearly every year. This was his workaholic summer: the aforementioned recitals plus the Ninth, the St. Matthew, the B-minor Mass and Elijah. In the St. Matthew he sang the bass arias, rising to full stature with every note, wrapping every phrase in the mantle of heartbreak; then he found an entirely different voice for the bitter words of Pontius Pilate. We chatted briefly; he spoke of singing Amfortas in a Simon Rattle–led Parsifal at Salzburg in 2002. I don’t recall speaking to another artist so completely at peace with himself and with music, and this irresistible eloquence is what comes through in his art.

San Francisco’s Parsifal was excel- lently led by Donald Runnicles, the company’s music director, who wove something close to gold out of the tatters of his pit orchestra. (Surely he, not to mention that gorgeous Opera House, deserves better!) The new production was by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who had created San Francisco’s Ring in 1985. I’m not willing to swear that it might be possible to stage an “authentic” Parsifal; the productions I remember best — the Hans-Jürgen Syberberg film, Robert Wilson’s staging in Houston — strayed rather far from Wagner’s rubrics. So, to lesser effect, did Lehnhoff’s. Raimund Bauer’s unit set, a curved wall pierced here and there with window holes of various sizes, lit mostly in a flat gray, didn’t become truly offensive until the third act, when out from the lower hole came a segment of railroad track ending in dust: the Knights of the Grail at the end of the line. There were no springtime colors for the Good Friday music; go look at the Syberberg movie for the perfect visual translation of that music. At the end, rather than finding her release in death as ordained, Kundry trudges back down the train track, followed dutifully by Parsifal — on their way, perhaps, to the domestic bliss that will someday produce the baby Lohengrin.

Britain’s Christopher Ventris, the Parsifal, came on like Tarzan and sang with a clear but somewhat harsh bright tenor. Catherine Malfitano, in her first Kundry, sang well enough but was hampered in the second act by designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s ludicrous layered costume that she was obliged to shed, piece by piece, like the pupal stages of some monstrous insect out to put the sting on Parsifal’s innocence. Better than any of this, as you might expect, was the Gurnemanz of Kurt Moll, a spectacularly wise and knowing artist, no longer young perhaps but — as above — irresistibly eloquent.