Scheduling Wagner's 'Ring' on PBS: where's the unity?

The wonder of television is not just its potential and real value as an entertainment medium, but its historic function as permanent chronicler of important events.

The two functions come together in the world of the arts. Indeed, when TV first began being an important cultural force in America in the '50s, the lively arts were an important part of its prestige and its draw. But as commercialism encroached on idealism - when popularity polls began dictating what was viable and what could bring in the highest advertising revenues - the arts dwindled.

Even now at PBS - the only non-cable network with any commitment to quality programming - too many crucial decisions are based on a fear of limited viewership. Too often the guaranteed draws such as Pavarotti or Horowitz push out equally important but less overtly starry events.

Apparently, the reason PBS has spread the complete Wagner ''Ring'' cycle out over six months is because of a fear of losing viewership if it were done in tight succession. There is no longer the sense that something as unprecedented as a complete ''Ring'' on TV would gain its own momentum and excitement as it progressed. (In England, ''The Ring'' became the ''Forsythe Saga'' of the day: People arranged their entire weekly schedules to stay home and watch the saga.)

So in a bid to appeal to the non-opera PBS viewership, the event has been stretched over a six-month period. In the process, music lovers have been alienated - though not necessarily to the point of not watching.

Not to watch the Patrice Chereau staging of Siegfried would indeed be a mistake, as not watching any part of this Ring taped in Wagner's own theater in Bayreuth would be a mistake (PBS: Acts I & II air April 11, Act II on April 18 th; check local listings for time and FM simulcast station in your area.)

Of the four operas that constitute the tetralogy with prologue, ''Siegfried'' is usually considered the most problematic. The opera is heavy on exposition - the entire work is really a setup for the final love duet and for ''Gotterdammerung'' (to be telecast in June).

Chereau's particular gift is to bring the characters superbly to life. He manages to get fine performances from the least compelling of performers.

Chereau's whimsy is much in evidence in this opera. Siegfried does not forge his sword by hand - he uses a gigantic machine. Fafner's dragon is a huge puppet on wheels that rolls around menacingly. The Forest Bird is no wild creature, but a caged tweeter he releases at the end of the second act to be led to Brunnhilde's Rock.

The serious side of the opera is not flouted, however. Mime is an especially insinuating, odious creature. Wotan-Wanderer's refusal to realize that all is over, that nothing remains but to return to Valhalla and await the end, has rarely been conveyed with such complexity. The bitterness and, finally, resignation at the core of the ''Ring'' come through in Wanderer's scenes with Alberich, Mime, and finally Siegfried. The electric performances Chereau elicits from Manfred Jung (Siegfried) and Miss Jones in the final duet is to render unwatchable all future performances from the semaphore school of Wagner acting.

As in the preceding operas in this TV series, the singing is mostly mediocre to downright awful, but the acting is superb. Pierre Boulez's conducting is majestic and thrilling; the rich, resonant sound of orchestra and voices filling the unique acoustics of the Bayreuth Festival Theater is a particular pleasure. Brian Large's direction of the TV cameras that select what we are to focus in on at any given moment is consistently helpful (as are the subtitles). Giulini in Japan

A full ''Ring'' on film is an unprecedented video event. But the medium serves another important funcution - creating an archive of performances by today's masters for tomorrow's students and music lovers to study and appreciate.

One such master is Carlo Maria Giulini - now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic - as evidenced on The Giulini Concerts - II (PBS, covering two evenings, one this week and one next week - Wednesdays in some areas, but check local listings for premiere and repeats and for stereo simulcast in most areas). The focus is not so much Giulini on music (as it in the previous series) as it is Giulini and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Japan. The first program is devoted to Beethoven's Fifth, the second to Tchaikovsky's Sixth.

There are rehearsal shots; there are scenes of the maestro being a tourist; there are snippets of interviews led by Ernest Fleischmann, the orchestra's executive director and the man responsible for getting Giulini to Los Angeles in the first place. These are of moderate interest.

The importance of these two performances lies in the opportunity they afford viewers to watch Giulini close up. He is not a flashy conductor. He stands feet spread apart, arms swinging across his body; and that's about it for gestures. The face is knotted in intense concentration that borders on distress at times. But the perspective gives the viewer a chance to sense just how he communicates with his orchestra. We see his face expressing the mood of each moment because the camera gives us a rare chance to see Giulini from the players' perspective.

The Tchaikovsky receives a fine performance. Giulini underplays the hysteria, but gives us all the brooding, all the despair. Somehow, even in this fine performance, one is not convinced that he at his very finest in Tchaikovsky.

For Beethoven, however, he is to the manner born. This is not an ''interpreter's'' Fifth - not one that fussily makes this point then that. Rather, Giulini presents a straightfoward but deeply felt Fifth that propels the passion, the power, and the majesty of the score with refreshing candor and vigor. This is a vintage Giulini performance - one that embodies all of his ideals about music and musicmaking. It is a source of joy to know that it will be available as an audio-visual experience for future generations.

The two programs are a co-production of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Polytel Music Productions, and Asahi Broadcasting Corporation (Japan). The camera work is at times intrusively fancy, but at all the key moments director Kenichiro Ishida keeps the camera on the maestro. And that, after all, is the purpose of the programs.

(Two more Giulini concerts on PBS - to be aired June 1 and 8 - will be devoted to Brahms, Hindemith, and Beethoven.)

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