Reflections on a Three-'Ring' Circus : Wagner's epic casts its spell in many guises, some of them serious

The hottest item around the War Memorial Opera House seemed to be a little button that proudly proclaimed the wearer's trendy malady: "RING FEVER."

It was that time again. It was time for Wagnerian grandeur and Wagnerian pathos. It was time for Wagnerian delusion and Wagnerian sprawl.

It also was time for a lot of long-delayed, ultimately uplifting Wagnerian climaxes. In some cases--not all of them intentional--it was time for a little Wagnerian silliness.

After a five-year hiatus, the San Francisco Opera was reviving its properly gigantic, automatically controversial, somewhat battered and tattered, essentially conservative staging of "Der Ring des Nibelungen." The massive production--a set of four interrelated super-operas that span a total of 17 hours--was to be staged four separate times between June 6 and today.

The principals and conductor might change. No matter. The swollen, convoluted saga would cast its inevitable, uncanny spell, even for the odd, misplaced iconoclast.

This, after all, was the ultimate Wagnerian experience: a durchkomponiert panorama involving feeble gods and fierce mortals, blustering giants and cringing dwarfs, singing dragons and hopping toads, specific magic and generic deceit, fatal greed and useless generosity, love and death, birth and rebirth, the whole damned thing.

Thunderous ovations greeted the cadence as the curtain fell. Sometimes the ovations anticipated the cadence. Sooner or later--preferably later--Wagner always has his way.

The hysterically devout would, in this instance, insist on spelling his with a capital H . Wagner attracts hordes of the hysterically devout.

The local hordes were lucky this year. They didn't have to travel to Bayreuth, that mecca of German meccas, to witness the lingering revenge of Alberich, the pathetic baritonal gnome who forswears love (not to be confused with sex) in exchange for power.

Harry Kupfer's unfortunate postmodern vision of the "Ring" was to be on view at the Bavarian shrine again this summer. American aficionados, however, could safely afford to stay home for once.

In fact, they could stay home literally. Those in need of a "Ring" fix didn't even have to venture a pilgrimage to the 3,200-seat, quake-scarred opera house in Northern California's Bagdad by the Bay. Relatively lazy Wagnerites could experience an even more conventional version of their favorite epic in their own living rooms.

The Metropolitan Opera--having enlisted aid from recording and video companies, not to mention some private philanthropies--had taped its emphatically reactionary production of the "Ring." It was presented by PBS on four consecutive, patently uncomfortable nights starting June 18.

In San Francisco, it was possible--confusing but possible--for the blissfully afflicted to grab a waiting cab at the opera house as the rainbow bridge materialized at the close of "Das Rheingold." Ed Smiddy, that kindly, impeccably tuxedoed veteran of many "Rings" and other in-house wars, always stood guard at the exit, ready to aid patrons with tricky transportation maneuvers. If the responding taxi driver, often a Valhalla habitue himself, sped hotelward with cooperative dispatch, the insatiable traveler could still catch two hours of "Siegfried" on the tube.

Overlapping performances should be enough to make even the most feverish of aficionados delirious. Still, some addicts cannot get enough of a habit-forming thing.

Many patrons stayed around the War Memorial for weeks. They needed more than one four-part dose of Wagnerian exultation. Even with the top ticket costing as much as $500 per cycle, curiosity regarding repetitions proved vastly compelling.

Insatiable Ringers simply had to be able to compare Gwyneth Jones' formidable though unsteady Brunnhilde (Cycles I and III) with Janis Martin's lyrical and poignant Brunnhilde (Cycle II) with Hildegard Behrens' intimate yet intense Brunnhilde (Cycle IV plus the Met telecast). Here was an embarrassment of heavyweight-soprano riches.

The incorrigible habitues had to know whether Robert Hale, the taut and incisive Wotan of Cycle II, could compare with James Morris, the otherwise ubiquitous, possibly overpraised, chief of the gods.

The insiders had to be able to discuss the relative merits of two conductors: Peter Schneider, the Austrian routinier who chugged rather hastily through the first two cycles, and Donald Runnicles, the Scottish newcomer who controlled both poetry and prose so memorably in the last two.

This usually happy, increasingly weary observer sampled three "Rings" in June--two in San Francisco and one on television--plus numerous fringe events. A lot of Wagner, it was confirmed, goes a long way.

The biggest problem at the opera house involved the man who wasn't there: Nikolaus Lehnhoff. The German director, who had staged the original production here in 1985, found himself embroiled in a managerial disagreement with Lotfi Mansouri, the new general director of the company. Lehnhoff withdrew in a well-publicized huff, leaving his partly naturalistic, partly symbolic, partly stylized, often muddled theatrical concept in the well-meaning hands of junior assistants. Dramatic definition suffered accordingly.

Musical matters remained uninspired under the generally competent, often hasty Schneider. Some orchestral sloppiness notwithstanding, the score sounded broader and more imaginative under Runnicles, who was conducting the full cycle for the first time in his career.

The casts fluctuated in quality, as all "Ring" casts must these days. Still, one could find much to admire: the sympathetic young Alberich of Tom Fox, the formidable old Alberich of Franz Mazura, the dramatically potent if strained Fricka of Helga Dernesch, the forceful if bland Siegmund of Gary Lakes, the sturdy Hunding of John Macurdy.

One also could find contributions to regret: the vocally frayed Siegfried of Rene Kollo, the pallid Mime of Helmut Pampuch, the light-voiced Erda of Brigitta Svenden, the shrill Sieglinde of Rebecca Blankenship, the artificially darkened Hagen of Eric Halfvarson, the nicely acted, badly sung, oddly incestuous Gibichungs of Kathryn Day (formerly Bouleyn) and Michael Devlin.

James Morris' top-heavy, bel-canto Wotan created the customary popular sensation. Unfortunately, dramatic impact concerned him only superficially.

Hale managed to delineate the rage, the agony and the pathos of the tragic character more compellingly, despite less generous resources. Instead of concentrating on pearly tone for its own sensuous sake, he paid careful attention to the text and to the inherent dramatic conflicts. He has come a long way since his days as all-purpose basso with the New York City and San Diego Operas.

San Francisco offered its "Ring" patrons some intriguing bonus benefits. Also some that were not so intriguing.

Academia got into the act. Distinguished scholars presented papers on the psychological problems of the work, the medical problems of its protagonists, the musical problems of its interpreters and the ethical problems of its creator. The Wagnerian calendar was crowded with panel discussions, exhibits, films, lectures, symposia, orgies of critical debate.

Eric Plaut, M.D., talked about "Dwarfs, Giants, Dragons and Other Body Distortions." Gunter B. Risse, M.D., Ph.D., held forth on "Health, Race and Medicine: Wagner's Germany, 1850-1890." F. C. Redlich, M.D., discussed "Wagner's Impact on Adolf Hitler." Sherwin Sloan of the department of ophthalmology at UCLA explored one of Wotan's essential problems: "Seeing With Only One Eye." Hans Hotter, the definitive Wotan of his time, taught master classes. And so it went.

Everyone took everything very seriously. The gospel according to Richard demands that. Well, almost everyone took everything very seriously.

Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera company came up with a shoestring version of Wagner's all-but-forgotten semi-Shakespearean comedy "Das Liebesverbot," known here as "No Love Allowed." A group called Opera Bouffes mustered an off-off-off-Broadway revue called "The Merry Nibelungs." This series of parodistic skits and soggy in-jokes recalled nothing so much as the annual performance of the tipsy uncle who puts a lampshade on his head after Thanksgiving dinner, climbs atop the living-room sofa and regails the assembled relatives with unfunny stories.

At Stern Grove, a wooded, sunny mirage on the outskirts of the city, Gwyneth Jones and some young members of the San Francisco Opera serenaded ecstatic picnickers with a free Wagner concert. The high-fidelity intentions were compromised, alas, by low-fidelity amplification.

No one really understands the "Ring." Even with subtitles, the plot contradictions and convolutions cause dismay.

This year, however, one could find a new crutch on the market, and it literally provided comic relief. DC Comics published its own pop version of the "Ring," recounting the story in precise, literal terms and splashing idealized illustrations across textually ballooned panels ($4.95 per opera). The inspired artist at work here was Gil Kane, the genius who gave us "Spider-Man." The deft writer was none other than Roy Thomas, author of "Conan the Barbarian."

The language for these brightly colored comics turned out to be more archaic--more Wagnerian, if you will--than what one could read either on the PBS screen or above the San Francisco proscenium.

"Look you, Mime," cries the muscular, loin-clothed Nature Boy as he splits the anvil. "Thus sunders 'Needful,' the sword of Siegfried."

" Splanng ," adds the dutiful weapon.

A message printed on the glossy cover of each comic-book volume warns the reader that this "Ring" is "suggested for mature readers." The ploy prepares would-be voyeurs, no doubt, for the shock of some bare-breasted Rhinemaidens, not to mention a reasonably steamy love scene that unites the liberated Volsung twins.

The comic-book "Ring" glorifies tacky kitsch, without shame and without apology. The Met production tries to validate, even to ennoble, the same vague vulgarities. Unfortunately, camp is less engaging when it emanates from high places.

PBS has preserved for a dubiously grateful posterity the literal, let's pretend, cheap-postcard "Ring" staged at Lincoln Center by Otto Schenk, and designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and Rolf Langenfass. The initial domestic telecasts here are to be followed by telecasts in at least 10 other countries. Integral CDs, laser discs and videotapes will not linger far behind.

The Met officially estimates the potential viewing audience as "over 100,000,000." The filming budget reportedly reached $1,250,000 per opera. It gives one pause.

For decades, the rest of the world has been trying to re-create Wagner's tetralogy with some smattering of modern stagecraft, to imbue it with vital sociopolitical meaning for contemporary audiences. Meanwhile, the Met harks back to the naive ways of provincial German houses before World War II. It would be funny, if it weren't so sad, so myopic and so wasteful.

Still, not all is lost. James Levine conducts with grandeur only occasionally compromised by stodginess. The mighty Met orchestra plays like an ensemble of bona-fide virtuosos. The cast includes such Wagnerian stalwarts as Behrens, Siegfried Jerusalem (performing Siegfried with masterly fervor despite indisposition), Lakes, Morris, Kurt Moll, the all-too matronly Jessye Norman, the impressively towering Matti Salminen and the wise if somewhat passe Christa Ludwig. These performances sound better than they look.

The televisionary values are further compromised by close-ups that stress theatrical fakery and by cameras that often manage to look the other way during the most crucial bits of action. Illusion, in any case, is a sometime thing. Fafner, the loathsome dragon, resembles nothing so much as a growling crab cake.

When PBS recorded Patrice Chereau's revolutionary and in many ways definitive Bayreuth "Ring" a decade ago, the telecasts were separated by weeks. This time, PBS made a lot of PR noise about the unprecedented plan to show the Met version on consecutive nights. This advantage was mitigated, however, by ridiculously late starting times--in most markets--and by the absence of life-sustaining intermissions.

Compressing the most music into the shortest possible time frame also necessitated the omission of any enlightening narrative beyond F. Murray Abraham's minimal introductions. At least the erstwhile Salieri managed to pronounce the German words and names elegantly.

The Met telecasts ended with the obligatory bravos and curtain calls, not all of them 100% authentic. Hildegard Behrens happened to sustain a minor injury when struck by a falling piece of scenery at the end of the final finale. The accident occurred off camera, after the soprano had finished the Immolation Scene. She was rushed to the hospital while the orchestra heralded benediction and redemption through love.

No one took any post-performance bows that night. Undaunted, the PBS editors spliced in curtain-call footage from a previous performance.

During Behrens' last televised bow, incidentally, an intriguing credit crawled down the screen. Following the obscure names of make-up artists, stage hands, lighting technicians, sound engineers, office assistants and caterers, PBS dutifully flashed the name of the Met's costume-shop head.

That unsung artisan turned out to one Richard Wagner.

Richard Wagner? Richard Wagner!

Gotterdammerung , indeed.

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