San Francisco Opera tries on Wagner's 'Ring'

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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.

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.

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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.

Four gold Roman portals remain on stage throughout the two operas (and, one assumes, the entire ''Ring''): two down at the proscenium, two at the back corners of the stage. Protrusions of raw rock cling to them like moss. Within that area, the drama unfolds on honest-to-goodness scenic sets, softened by a permanent scrim that lends each scene a painterly glow.

At no point is one lacking a sense of locale. Some of the vistas are breathtaking, such as the ruined Greek terrace from which one sees a magnificent Schinkelian Valhalla completed in the distance. Alberich's realm, Niebelheim, is a chilling vault in the bowels of the earth, supported by huge pillars, with the flywheel to an invisible elevator in half view.

In ''Walkure,'' the first act takes place in a courtyard of some ancient dwelling that Hunding has appropriated. The walls break apart to reveal the spring scene Wagner expected to be visible through a door. The second act is set in two scenes (Wagner specified only one). It opens on a gold-and-mandarin-red-columned terrace that hardly looks as if it belongs inside the Valhalla seen for so much of ''Rheingold.'' Then it's off to a desolate valley where Siegmund is slain by Hunding, the only touch of neo-Bayreuth in the production, and the least successful set.

What of the characterizations? In ''Rheingold,'' Lehnhoff's Wotan clan is a callow lot - preening, silly, frivolous (in his words, ''swimming pool set''), the men clad in colorful breastplates and Roman skirts. It prepares us not at all for what Wotan becomes in ''Die Walkure.'' We get no sense of the depth of this mythological god, or the powerful inner contradictions that set this mighty saga into motion. He moves from shallow maturity to aged sage between the operas (by means of double-casting - Michael Devlin in ''Rheingold'' and Thomas Stewart in ''Walkure''), even though Freia's much-discussed golden apples keep the gods eternally young.

Siegmund and Sieglinde are made very believable and passionate here, and overall, ''Walkure'' favors Wagner's ideas rather than Lehnhoff's interpretations. Curiously, though, Brunnhilde is meant to be a young lass, like a cheerleader, even when beckoning Siegmund to Valhalla, though at least here Wotan is the imposing figure one expects.

With few exceptions, however, we do not feel that these gods enjoy supernatural powers. Nature remains conspicuously unaffected by them, even when the music and the words are telling us otherwise. The sense of symbols conveying philosophical meaning is less pronounced than it must be to keep the fabric of the action cohesive and coherent.

We have Rhine maidens that appear to swim (six dancers pop up and around the rock, rarely more than three at a time), and mouth the words sung from the orchestra pit, a device that does not work. There is a splendid dragon, a silly-wonderful toad; the gods do walk toward Valhalla with a sense of destination and purpose; and that Valhalla is a mighty structure indeed.

The singing had its ups and downs. In ''Rheingold,'' Walter Berry's imposing Alberich - the first of his career - was vigorous, ominous, if slightly roughshod vocally. William Lewis's voice carries, and he makes much of his words as Loge, but by opera's end the sound is wearing, and even this good an actor cannot make sense of Loge dressed as a 1860s lawyer in morning coat and spats who enters reading a Wall Street Journal.

''Walkure'' was dominated by veterans. Leonie Rysanek's first Sieglinde was in 1951. It remains a thrilling, vital, youthful creation. Thomas Stewart's Wotan is a thing of great dignity, power, and compassion. He sings his words with rare conviction and his presence has always been unusually imposing.

Jeannine Altmeyer, who has been singing Sieglinde at Bayreuth, is recording Brunnhilde for Eurodisc and here attempted the role for the first time on stage. Her voice is not large enough for this new venture, and the presence lacks polish, authority, and heroism. Brunnhilde must convince us that she is a warrior as well as a woman. An unfortunate habit of moving her entire body when she sings further weakens her stage deportment.

The fourth performance found Gwyneth Jones stepping into the production, and suddenly the opera pulled together. Her voice is also too light for Brunnhilde and the top is losing its gleam, but she is such a splendid actress that the total strengths far outweighed the flaws. Her interaction with Miss Rysanek and Mr. Stewart in the last act was one of the great opera-as-theater moments in recent operatic memory.

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