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A refreshingly theatrical `Ring'. Seattle Opera's deft production stresses character, not modern-day relevancy

TWELVE years ago the Seattle Opera, a small and not exactly burgeoning regional company, undertook the impossible by mounting two complete cycles of Wagner's ``Der Ring des Nibelungen'' (``The Ring of the Nibelungs''). And last season, a bold, controversial new production directed by Fran,cois Rochaix was unveiled by the company's new general director, Speight Jenkins.

So far this season, operagoers here have had an opportunity to see ``Das Rheingold'' (``The Rhinegold'') and ``Die Walk"ure'' (``The Valkyrie'') of the first cycle. The second cycle begins this Sunday. (``Siegfried'' and ``G"otterd"amerung'' [``Twilight of the Gods''] will be discussed next week in this space.)

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So far, it is an often stimulating and provocative view of Wagner's sprawling epic opera - one that stresses simplicity and superior design (by Robert Israel) in its telling of the mythological story. Rochaix has eschewed the political/societal overtones common in current ``Ring'' stagings, choosing instead to stress theater rather than the cosmos.

Wotan becomes Wagner himself, the consummate theater craftsman always struggling to push the medium beyond the limitations that the paltry scenic and lighting technology of his day dictated. By not trying to drag in the work's relevancy to today's society or the ``corruption'' of the capitalist system or the abuse and misuse of absolute power or any the other elements so many ``Ring'' directors try to inject, Rochaix gives himself a manageable context, within which he functions with ease.

Telling the ``Ring'' story is never easy. The opera opens with total darkness - no prehistory, just a (rather than the) beginning. In the first scene, the one with the Rhinemaidens, the director must establish what direction the production will take, what images his concept will rely on, and what slant the characters will be given.

The imagery of Rochaix's and Israel's ``Ring'' is 19th-century. The primitive simplicity of old-fashioned theatrical effects is glorified. There is little attempt to indicate that Wotan has superhuman powers. In fact, it is the very mortal qualities of Rochaix's Wotan that give the entire concept its interest. He is as much a god as any gifted theater manager might be, which is close in spirit to what Wagner intended.

Along the way, Rochaix casts new light on various characters, making them more believable, more human, and more vulnerable than in most productions.

The giants, Fasolt and Fafner, are master craftsmen rather than oversize titans. Fasolt's longing for the goddess Freia is far more stirring here than usual. Sieglinde is an abused housewife, who has spent her life waiting for the arrival of that unknown guest she knows will be her brother/savior. Fricka bears a certain resemblance to Wagner's first wife, Minna, a respectable woman in a somewhat seamy profession, who, by the time ``Walk"ure'' is in full swing, has become a pillar of rectitude, not so much shrewishly trying to trap her husband as invoking godly consistency and standards.

Scenically, all this leads to some unusual choices. The Rhinemaidens perform on acres of billowing blue parachute nylon. The gods climb up a ladder on their way to Valhalla (which is out of view of the audience). Wotan's rocky glen becomes an arresting stage-machine tower that revolves to change the scene. Br"unnhilde is put to sleep, not on a mountaintop, but amid a huge pile of theatrical rubble.

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Unfortunately, the Rhinemaidens are not keenly enough delineated to make Rochaix's viewpoint clear in the first scene of the cycle. But by the time we reach his ominous Niebelheim world, the concept is in full swing, and it leads to some memorable moments. In ``Walk"ure'' I have never seen such a haunting, tender staging as this of the Siegmund/Sieglinde duet, set on a beautiful mead of spring flowers. Wotan's realization that his ideals have been seriously compromised by his impulsiveness and double dealings is unfolded with particular clarity. His refusal to let the plight of his daughter, Br"unnhilde, temper his haughtiness makes their big scene of the last act unusually tense.

Rochaix and his gifted designer are not above being outrageously theatrical. The fire at the end of ``Walk"ure'' is real. The Valkyries ride up and down, back and forth, on merry-go-round horses in a stunningly effective staging of the ``Ride of the Valkyries.''

Vocally, this ``Ring'' is inconsistent, however. The only international star is Leonie Rysanek, the great Sieglinde of the past three decades, still finding new facets of the character to communicate, and still dazzling audiences with the sheer power of her commitment as a singer and actor. Diane Curry's Fricka is majestic, both histrionically and vocally. Gabor Andrasy's Hunding is suitably menacing of voice and demeanor. Emile Belcourt's world-weary, elegantly acted Loge, Julian Patrick's substantial Alberich, and Hubert Delamboye's forceful Mime are all assets.

And it is credit enough under any circumstances to note that both Linda Kelm, as Br"unnhilde, and Roger Roloff, as Wotan, easily endured the strenuous vocal demands of their roles. Yet I felt that neither ever really illuminated their characters or reveled in the poetic and melodic riches of them. And though Barry Busse looked the role of Siegmund, he had problems sustaining it vocally.

Hermann Michael's conducting of the first two works is curiously inconsistent. At times, this is full-ranging Wagner, full of expertly gauged climaxes and lyrically propulsive drama. At other times, this is a reading of such restraint as to be lacking in dramatic punch.

Thor Eckert is the Monitor's music critic.

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