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San Francisco Opera tries on Wagner's 'Ring'

By Thor Eckert Jr. / June 22, 1983

San Francisco

Wagner's ''Ring'' is everywhere this year. The protracted PBS presentation of Bayreuth's Patrice Chereau staging of the four-opera epic finished airing in mid-June.

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A brand-new staging by Sir Peter Hall begins in Bayreuth at Wagner's own theater this summer, with Sir Georg Solti making his Bayreuth debut.

In Seattle, the annual ''Rings'' - one in English, one in German - have become a regular feature of the music scene.

And Boston unveiled a new, small-scale concert ''Ring'' last summer; this summer, it becomes ''fully staged,'' and also moves to New York for a cycle.

Presenting the ''Ring'' has not been a primarily musical matter for well nigh three decades now: Directors want to make their own distinctive artistic, philosophical, or social statements. They use Wagner's own very specific statement, twisting, distorting, destroying it, to suit their needs.

Wagner's grandson, Wieland, created a new style at Bayreuth, with minimal sets, severe costumes, and lighting effects. He pared down Wagner's own to a symbolic essence which, according to firsthand accounts, only Wieland could pull off. Nevertheless, a ''neo-Bayreuth'' style was born. We have now gone even beyond that, with crazy productions that put the work in the space age, or on a sandbag mountain littered with stuffed deer, or what-have-you.

It was a relief to hear that in San Francisco, general director Terence A. McEwen was promising a ''Ring'' that represented a return to romanticism, color, and beauty. As viewed in the first two installments - ''Das Rheingold'' and ''Die Walkure'' - he has been true to his word. His stage director, Nicholas Lehnhoff, and designer, John Conklin, dazzle us with color, with recognizable characters, with people rather than stilted ciphers.

This ''Ring'' is off to a bold, interesting start. Next summer ''Siegfried'' will be unveiled, and in 1985, ''Gotterdamerung'' will be added and the San Francisco ''Ring'' put together in its entirety for the first time.

It is clearly stimulating, full of ideas - mostly good, some bad. In this age of waning Wagnerian singing, Mr. McEwen managed to give us a stronger portion than usual of the real stuff (and a far better ''Walkure'' than the one heard at the ''source'' - Bayreuth - on TV). In conductor Edo de Waart he has a nascent Wagnerian who, with time, will grow even more into the music and the drama.

Mr. de Waart was beginning his first ''Ring'' here. The first ''Walkure'' I heard was listless, inattentive to his singers, and rather cold. He then conducted a ''Rheingold'' full of glory, sweep, beauty, and majesty.

Finally at his fourth ''Walkure,'' de Waart showed his true colors, and what a performance he gave! It was Wagner on an unusually high level, and particularly surprising from a ''first-timer.'' His support of his singers was exemplary.

A production that allows all these elements to fit together into one of those rare, passionately moving performances of an opera has a good deal going for it. It bodes well indeed for the entire cycle in 1985.

In this thoughtful, sometimes quirky ''Ring,'' Mr. Conklin has taken for his inspiration the paintings of Capsar David Friedrich and the architectural drawings and paintings of Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

Mr. Lehnhoff says in an interview in the program book that in the paintings, especially those of Friedrich, ''the tragedy of nature is so well expressed. . . . It is very much a feeling of the 19th century, the century of Wagner.''

Throughout the two operas one senses a director coming slowly to terms with the epic: By the time he has worked through to the end of ''Gotterdamerung'' in 1985, the director will no doubt return and fine-tune these first two, tie up the loose ends, and tidy up the confusions that pepper them.

Mr. Lehnhoff sets this ''Ring'' between civilizations rather than at the beginning of mythological time. Wotan is head of the newest order. Since we eventually learn that he perpetrated many crimes and noble deeds even before ''Rheingold'' opens, there is justification for this. It also allows the sets to give us a sense of civilizations growing, then failing - fading, even rotting, into primordial nature.