NEW YORK — A YOUNG man leans across a table in a cafe. "...So then Siegfried kills the dragon, of course," he says, with one jab of his fork. He takes another bite and plunges back into his synopsis of the three operas leading up to Gotterdammerung, the last opera in Richard Wagner's "Ring cycle."
His friend across the table, who has not managed a word in about 20 minutes, does not look convinced.
But most in the crowd that gathered across the street at New York's Lincoln Center for the first of this year's Metropolitan Opera performances of Gotterdammerung on April 17 needed no convincing. Ed Maher, from Palmyra, N.J., has sat through the four operas and 18-plus hours of the Ring cycle once before.
"I don't understand the music," he says. "But the special effects are great!"
He persuaded his wife, Doris, to come this time, and they prepared for Ring Round 2 with a heavy dose of Wagner videotapes borrowed from friends. They also stocked a small picnic cooler, which they kept at their feet during the half-day performances. "Can't face the $3.95 [finger] sandwiches here," he says.
Many hard-core Wagnerians waited to see the Ring cycle as Wagner intended it - presented on consecutive nights. (The Met's second of two week-long performances of the Ring ends tomorrow.) For newcomers to the largest work in the history of Western music, however, the days in a week between the four Saturday matinees that launched this year's Ring cycle provided a last chance to bone up on the libretto.
For Wagner parvenus, there are no spirited discussions in the lobby during intermissions about whose vibrato is off or who's missing the notes. These members of the audience don't know the notes, or the language (German). They barely know the plot.
"No! No! The Rhinemaidens live under the ground," says a carefully coifed woman to a friend between acts of Gotterdamerung.
"But why do they live under the ground?" asks her friend.
"Because they're goddesses! [of course]."
In fact, the Rhinemaidens do not live under the ground. They live in the Rhine, which is where the Ring cycle begins. The curtain opens on a darkened stage, with an E flat sounding so low in the double basses that many in the audience do not realize the opera has begun. Bassoons pick up a B flat, and, with swirling variations, the orchestra soon sounds like the currents of a great river. As the musical line develops, the stage - with the help of lighting, shills, and Mylar strips - takes on the appearanc e of the depths of the river, complete with Rhinemaidens and a heap of gold.
THE plot turns on the travels of the gold they guard. During the 19 hours, it passes through the hands of:
* An envious dwarf (Alberich), who renounces love for the promise of absolute power.
* A god (Wotan), who overpromises his sister-in-law to giants in return for building a home for the gods (Valhalla).
* A giant (Fafner) who turns himself into a dragon (and apparently also forswears love).
* An energetic and racially correct hero (Siegfried), who kills the dragon and awakens an ex-goddess (Brunnhilde) sleeping atop a mountain of fire.
* Brunnhilde, who keeps the ring as a token of Siegfried's undying love.
* Siegfried, who quaffs a magic potion and forgets Brunnhilde within 27 opera minutes of leaving the mountain.
* Brunnhilde, who (with her horse) leaps on Siegfried's funeral pyre, the flames of which spread through castle of men and the home of the gods.
* The Rhinemaidens, who recover the ring when the river inexplicably floods the smoldering castle at the end of the opera.
This opera rewards, even demands, close study. There are no songs or choruses in the work. The orchestra carries much of the the burden of expressing thought and feeling largely through the device of leitmotifs, or themes associated with various characters, objects, or ideas in the operas.
For example, while Brunnhilde looks toward the doorway Siegfried has just passed through with his new wife, the orchestra tell us that she is thinking first of the new bride, then of her love for Siegfried, finally of conspiracy.
Subtle changes in themes also express dramatic and philosophic ideas. The theme first associated with Erda (earth mother or destiny) inverted becomes the theme for the downfall of the gods or the old order. Falling semitones or a lingering line signal a change in mood. Brunnhilde's heroic Valkyrie theme is first blared out in brass, but it finds its most dramatic expression later in the strings as a wisp of a thought.
There have always been disturbing political themes in Wagner's music. The notion of racial purity and the glories of a fiery death ring particularly hollow to an audience that goes home to news reports of Bosnia and Waco.
But in the end, this music stands on its own. In a world of fast food and fast bites, it reaffirms the value of close and sustained listening.