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Handsome `Siegfried' enters Met's `Ring' cycle. Schenk: a director good at storytelling

The Metropolitan Opera's traditional and conservative new production of Wagner's ``Ring'' cycle of four operas is, with the recent unveiling of ``Siegfried,'' now one opera away from completion. The first two installments - ``Das Rheingold'' and ``Die Walk"ure'' - seemed dramatically aimless and exceedingly dull visually.

With ``Siegfried,'' director Otto Schenk, designer G"unther Schneider-Siemssen, and costume designer Rolf Langenfass have suddenly come to life. And while no bold insights or profound interpretive viewpoints are put forth - the intention of this cycle has always been to create a ``Ring'' cycle that Wagner would have approved - there is a satisfying naturalness to the action that was missing in the earlier productions. (It can be heard on the Texaco/Metropolitan Opera Radio Network on Saturday, March 5, 12:30 EST, check local listings.)

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This is the most handsome Wagner production I have seen in many years. The cave and forge of the first act have a visual amplitude and breadth that allow the action to unfold without a cramped feeling.

The sumptuous ``Forest Glen'' boasts an especially ominous cave, where Fafner, now magically disguised as a dragon, protects his golden hoard. And when the dragon finally appears, it is a slimy, shudder-producing creation, which is part science-fiction land crab, part Jabba the Hutt.

The last act opens with a rather pedestrian set, and the on-stage scene change is tepid. But the final scene takes place on a handsome rocky plateau, and is superbly lit - surely Gil Wechsler's finest hour as lighting designer.

Director Schenk is usually at his very best in storytelling operas, so it should be no surprise that his ``Siegfried'' - the real story opera of the ``Ring'' - is so consistently engrossing, occasionally funny, chilling when need be, and passionate in the final duet for Br"unnhilde and Siegfried.

This is also the best all-around cast the Met has had for its ``Ring'' operas to date. I attended the third performance, where Toni Kr"amer made his debut in the title role. He is a shrewd singer, as was clear when I heard him in this role in Seattle last summer.

In New York he was contending with an occasionally too-loud orchestra under the direction of James Levine, but he knew where to give and where to give up.

And if he sounded a little less fresh than I remembered from Seattle, nevertheless, a Siegfried of this quality and this overall stamina is rare today.

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His Br"unnhilde, Hildegard Behrens, was not in the best voice for her 35-minute appearance in the opera's last scene. However, she is always a commanding and committed performer, and there was never any doubt as to what was flashing through this Br"unnhilde's mind and heart.

As the malign dwarf Mime, Horst Hiestermann was impressive in seeming petulant and whiney, while planting the seeds of total evil, so that the incidents that led to his murder in the second act were clear to the audience.

Franz Mazura made a brief appearance as Alberich, and, as expected, made the most of his moments. Gwendolyn Bradley chirped prettily as the Forest Bird.

Donald McIntyre's Wanderer was forthright, strongly sung, well characterized. Anne Gjevang's Erda was commendable as well, and, while one could wish for a richer lower voice, she never sounded un-comfortable in the low-lying music.

This was also Levine's grandest moment in a ``Ring'' opera to date. He usually takes a while to work his way through a score that is new to him, and at this third performance, it sounded as if his third act was not really worked out in full. But the first two had all the grandeur, theatrical breadth, and orchestral beauty one could ask for.

By the time of the broadcast and final performance of the run, Saturday, March 5, it is probable that that third act will have picked up in pacing, energy, and overall shaping.

Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.

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