A high point in the Met's `Ring' cycle

It's been 16 years since the Metropolitan Opera last offered a complete cycle of Wagner's ``Der Ring des Nibelungen.'' But with the recent unveiling of its new production of ``G"otterd"amerung,'' its new cycle is well under way. It will be completed next spring. What is good about this ``G"otterd"amerung'' far outweighs what is problematic, and it indicates just what this entire ``Ring'' might have achieved, had the production team brought the same theatrical awareness to the three other operas that was evidenced in the past two seasons.

In fact, Wagner's vision of ultimate cataclysm - complete with crumbling walls, an engulfing Rhine, Valhalla in flames, and a brilliant sunrise on the ruins of the old order - is hair-raisingly well managed. In the few minutes it takes to play out the scene, one sees the sort of stage wizardry that has been missing from much of the cycle.

When the Met backed music director James Levine's desire to offer a ``Ring'' that Wagner might have recognized, it turned to Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and Otto Schenk, the designer and director of the company's justifiably acclaimed ``Tannh"auser.'' When unveiled in 1978, that production seemed to herald a new era of theatrically magical Wagner productions. But ironically the ``Ring'' operas have proceeded without that unique blend of contemporary stage technology and grandly naturalistic scenery that made ``Tannh"auser'' special.

Some of the monolithic literalness of the earlier sets is seen in ``G"otterd"amerung,'' though the first act's imposing Gibichung hall and the second act's Rhine banks are scenically handsome. The riverbank is an exceptional space on which Schenk deploys large and small forces with particular impact. However, Gil Wechsler's tendency toward obscure lighting makes it hard to see faces even in bright scenes. Generally Rolf Langenfass's costumes are somewhat less extreme than in the other productions (except for Waltraute's hideous silver-mesh smock).

The real glories, however inconsistent, of this production are vocal and orchestral.

Levine's first performances of works new to his repertoire are often sketchy explorations, with the depth coming later. And in the first act of ``G"otterd"amerung'' one sensed a tendency toward languid tempos. But the second and third acts offered as fine a stretch of conducting as Levine has given at the Met in the past decade.

Yes, there were patches where it was hard to hear the singers and some burs that need to be smoothed out. But the drama of the music boiled to a full fury at all the right times, and in the moments where the orchestra's playing is fully exposed (``Siegfried's Funeral March'' and the ``Immolation Scene,'' for instance), the sound matched that of the finest of international ensembles. The contributions of the Met chorus in Act II were astonishing.

The cast was dominated by the physically and vocally towering Hagen of Matti Salminen, whose impersonation of craven evil was terrifying in its sinister relentlessness. Christa Ludwig made Waltraute's scene memorable: This legendary mezzo pours out the tone and suffuses the text with an array of acute nuances and insights. Hanna Schwarz stood out blazingly in the often overlooked role of the Second Norn. On the less positive side, there was Toni Kr"amer's erratic stab at Siegfried, mostly an attempt to get through rather than to bring the role to life.

Currently Hildegard Behrens is displaying some vocal limitations, and in this most taxing of the three Br"unnhildes, she was unable to hide them in her usual blaze of shrewdly calculated histrionics. At too many junctures the voice sounded too thin for the role in this vast space, particularly at the dynamic level at which Levine required her to sing.

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

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