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A `Ring' cycle worthy of Wagner's grand design

The San Francisco Opera's new ``Ring'' cycle is now complete. I concluded last week's column with something of a question: ``Whether [this `Ring'] has the mythic depth to stir profoundly remains to be seen.'' As seen in the second of three cycles (spread out over seven days), it is, in total, a stirring experience. This is director Nicholas Lehnhoff's first ``Ring,'' and there are flaws that will surely be ironed out. But the great strength of this ``Ring'' remains the way in which Mr. Lehnhoff has humanized the characters of each opera. This does not mean he has adhered to the iconography of Wagner's specific instructions. Indeed, by the time we have gotten to ``G"otterd"ammerung,'' we are eons away from Wagner's Viking-like society. Lehnhoff and designer John Conklin see the land of the Gibichungs as an advanced society at the peak of its temporal powers, headed by a weakling and consumed with decadence. Their hall speaks of Caligulan Rome, the Third Reich, a touch of late Victorian England -- any traditional superpower at the point of fatal corruption. Lehnhoff makes the siblings, Gunther and Gutrune, and their half brother, Hagen, an explicit m'enage `a trois. Gunther is the figurehead and a shell of a man; Hagen is the lurking Rasputin-like power behind the throne, working at the downfall of Siegfried and the re-attaining of the ring his father, Alberich, has spent the years since ``Rheingold'' scheming to get back.

When Siegfried finally shows up, and is drugged into forgetting his beloved Br"unnhilde, he is ensnared in the Gibichung web that precipitates Wagner's Armageddon -- which comes only after Br"unnhilde learns just what love really means and why her immolation is crucial to the redemption of the world.

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There are still questions. Why are the four portals -- which are meant to represent theater and nature, and which loom in some sort of silent commentary over the entire cycle -- neither explained nor exploited? What really is the role of the supernatural in this ``Ring''? Why is the Rhine so vague a visual image, when it appears at all?

What Lehnhoff does celebrate is humanity, and particularly love -- in all its facets, its strengths, its distortions, and even its opposite. All the characters of Lehnhoff's ``Ring'' express some facet of it -- from the loving then love-rebuking Alberich to the utterly loveless, hate-animated Hagen. Wotan/Wanderer paid the price of love unexpressed for the power he attained. Siegfried's love is all boyish innocence and naivet'e. Br"unnhilde is the only one who really learns love in the fullest sense of the word -- Wagner's sense of love as ultimate self-sacrifice.

Curiously, at the very end of ``G"otterd"ammerung,'' Lehnhoff reintroduces Loge, the fire god Wotan trapped into service as adviser and lackey: He comes through the smoke to stand as a warning to all who have witnessed the cycle that something has to be learned, but that it is up to us to decide what.

``Siegfried'' is a wonderful show. The sets are splendid, the effects magical. Fafner's cave is menacing, the dragon imposing and yet humorous. Visually, ``G"otterd"ammerung'' is equally memorable from the aforementioned oppressive Gibichung hall to the gods' terrace, now a decrepit ruin, to the Gibichung terrace on which the final apotheosis begins. And the desolate landscape with its ruined church wall that opens the third act is perhaps the strongest visual setting of the cycle. Unfortunately, the weakest one is the most important -- Br"unnhilde's rock, unattractive in color and ungainly in shape.

Eva Marton dominated the last two operas of the ``Ring.'' Her Br"unnhilde is in the grand tradition of big-voiced singers. And she brings a passionate femininity and humanity to this Amazonian creature. Her ``Siegfried'' Br"unnhilde is all confusion at being a woman, and impulsive, kittenish enthusiasm at having Siegfried as her betrothed. But by ``G"otterd"ammerung's'' end, she has learned all her lessons, and the majestic dignity with which Miss Marton infuses the ``Immolation Scene'' is something few Br"unnhildes of recent memory have managed with such convincing verisimilitude. The singing was unflaggingly resplendent, particularly in the aforementioned scene -- the capstone of the ``Ring.''

Ren'e Kollo's tenor is not weighted for Siegfried, but he is an intelligent singer and a superior actor. At all times, his hero was boldly, strongly sung, with far more poetry than one is used to encountering in this role. Thomas Stewart's Wanderer was a creation of nobility, projected with heartbreaking sadness mingled with dignity and regret at the realization that his time has come and gone. Hanna Schwarz's Erda was vivid for its vocalism and sensitive acting. John Tomlinson's Hagen was short of voice but impressive of histrionic ability. Helg Dernesch made a memorable Waltraute -- so strong of presence, and so alert in her responses to Br"unnhilde. Walter Berry's Alberich continued to be boldly characterized throughout this ``Ring.''

Edo de Waart's finest hour was in the ``Siegfried'': From this, one knows he will grow into a fine ``Ring'' conductor. As yet, his ``G"otterd"ammerung'' lacks the epic sweep and the snarl of evil and menace it must have to do full justice to the second act in particular. The orchestra played handsomely: It has made great progress in the few years it has been fully the Opera Orchestra.

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Overall, then, this has been a magnificent achievement. At its best, it is also full of the kind of magnificent Wagner singing many had feared was lost to the world forever. Even Bayreuth cannot always offer as much.

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