Boston's Lyric Opera tries on Wagner's 'Ring'

Unless you happen to be in Bayreuth - the West German town where an annual summer Richard Wagner festival is held - you probably don't get much of a shot at seeing a fully staged version of Wagner's ''Ring.''

The sprawling operatic cycle - fully titled ''Der Ring des Nibelungen'' (''The Ring of the Nibelung'') - is a 15-hour, four-night version of German mythology that presents enough of a challenge to tax the talents and pocketbooks of the mightiest opera companies.

Last summer, the Seattle Opera Company presented massive, critically successful ''Ring.'' But most regional opera companies - even the mighty Metropolitan in New York - tend to steer clear of the Teutonic dreadnought.

After spending four nights last week staging this landmark of Western culture here, Boston's three-year-old Lyric Opera Company is preparing to take it to New York. And one hopes Manhattan's Beacon Theatre - where it will be offered Aug. 8 , 9, 11, and 13 - will get the same serving of this rare musical delicacy.

How, one might ask, does this particular group - by common wisdom the third-stringer of Boston's three opera companies - have the audacity to mount such a spectacle?

Perhaps to show it can be done. The Lyric Opera's performances managed to do some justice to this exceedingly complex work. If only because such a fully staged ''Ring'' cycle is hard to come by - and because it was attempted by what is essentially a community opera company - these performances were quite remarkable. They had enough real artistic merit to carry them well beyond the novelty stage.

Of course, in a shoe-string operation such as this, there were some last-minute financial flutters. After a strong performance of ''Gotterdammerung, '' the cycle's final installment last Saturday, music director John Balme mounted the stage just before the final act to plead with the audience for an additional $25 each. Only then, he insisted, could the troupe's trip to the Big Apple take place ''with financially sound hearts.''

That it is a low-budget production was obvious. The Boston performances were held in Northeastern University's Alumni Auditorium, whose stage is tiny and orchestra pit nearly nonexistent. The sets were obviously conjured up under the strictest of financial restraints. While sometimes imaginative, their austerity often made them abstract, almost beyond recognition. With aluminum-tube tree trunks, smoked plexiglass sheets punched with holes swiss-cheese style against the inexplicable background of a shiny chain-link fence, set designer Rick Schreiber made a Wagnerian forest look like the Sesame Street play lot gone new wave.

Despite such conspicuous cost-cutting, the performances got better as they went along. The Lyric Opera plowed through a stiff ''Das Rheingold,'' followed the next evening by an amazingly uneven ''Die Walkure'' that flirted with both the best and worst an operatic performance could offer. Redemption came with a more tightly controlled presentation of ''Siegfried.'' Completing the tetralogy and crowning the entire effort was a well-executed ''Gotterdammerung.''

Such a trend bodes especially well for New York audiences if it means that members of the brave little company are settling into their routines. Flicka Wilmore's platitudinal Freia in ''Rheingold'' gave way to a more convincing portrayal of Gutrune in ''Gotterdammerung.'' Brunnhilde, as portrayed by DeNice Jenssen, lost some of the icy shrillness she had displayed in ''Walkure.'' By the final installment, her voice had acquired a reserved, if edgy, poise, while losing none of its earlier fearlessness.

In at least one case though, the trend went the other way. Tenor Ticho Parly displayed a colorful voice and consummate acting skill in ''Rheingold'' as Loge, the conniving Germanic god of fire and divine gadfly. But as the title character in ''Siegfried,'' Parly seemed miscast in style and personality. Daniel Tomaselli took over the part in ''Gotterdammerung.'' He did not display the artistry Parly did in ''Rheingold,'' but with a large voice and strong physical presence, Tomaselli infused the role with an amiable naivete that seemed the more convincing method of presenting this heroic figure.

Music director Balme is one of the weaker links in the production. Head buried in score, he provided careful, competent leadership of the proceedings. But rather than take an active interpretive role while guiding the ensemble through his personal convictions about the work, he settled for the role of time beater.

Drawing on the traditional summer surplus of Boston's first-rate freelancing instrumentalists, conductor Balme has assembled a very fine pit orchestra, whose well-trained musical instincts carry the day. But without a firm hand on the tiller, where there should have been dramatic tension, there too often was listlessness. The vitality came from the energy of the production's dedicated performers and, of course, the greatness of Wagner's inspiration.

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