Seattle Opera brings out deep themes in Wagner's `Ring'

The Seattle Opera production of Wagner's mighty ``Ring'' cycle, unveiled last season, has clearly made this Pacific Northwest city an operatic and Wagner center. The ``Siegfried'' and ``G"otterd"ammerung'' that director Fran,cois Rochaix has devised for this wide stage are at once visually arresting and full of dazzling surprises. (They will be staged again tonight and Saturday, respectively.) The most extraordinary surprise is the huge fire that appears to engulf - with great billowing balls of flames - the unit set of the last act of ``G"otterd"ammerung.'' But some of the quieter ideas - such as having the Forest Bird be manipulated with a long pole by Karen Hall while she sings the music - work just as tellingly. Throughout, Robert Israel proves himself to be a designer of remarkable effectiveness. And one cannot overlook Joan Sullivan's impressive lighting.

As reported last week, the overall visual theme of the Rochaix ``Ring'' is 19th-century theater. This imagery continues through the last two works, but the broader aspects of Wagner's drama - good vs. evil, the corruptive aspects of power - take over as the sense of Wotan/Wagner the theater/stage manager fades.

This ``Ring'' comes together interpretively in the confrontation between Alberich and Wotan in the second act of ``Siegfried.'' The staging is at once unorthodox and yet deeply true to Wagner: unorthodox because Alberich actually touches the mighty spear (the source of Wotan's powers) and tries to wrest it from the god's hands; true to Wagner because the composer/librettist refers to Wotan as the white Alberich, and here Rochaix gives us the thrilling impact of the two characters - two vivid aspects of the same lust for power and domination - wrestling with each other.

Wotan finally departs to await his end, leaving the stage for Alberich and his son Hagen (Siegfried's sinister counterpart) to win back the ring. But by the end of the cycle, Alberich is once again facing the ring-bearing Rhinemaidens (as in the first scene of ``Das Rheingold''), only to realize that they have learned their lessons well and he will never get the ring.

What is most remarkable about this ``Ring'' is the clarity with which it all unfolds. Anything Rochaix adds to tradition is done for elucidating a point, and aided by Mr. Israel's striking designs, it almost always works. When the Dragon appears, for example, it knocks over the various flats that represent the forest, first revealing Alberich, then his brother Mime, those bitter antagonists who are separately lurking in hopes of grabbing the ring from what each expects will be a dying Siegfried.

A few moments are somewhat vague - such as the hero's autobiographical pantomime that accompanies the transformation music in the third act of ``Siegfried'': There is a bit too much going on, so we lose the real narrative line. The Fafner dragon is new this year and seems too charmingly Disney-esque. Any ``Ring'' is a work-in-progress. The celebrated Patrice Ch'ereau ``Ring'' seen on television was the cumulative effort of over five seasons of tinkering. Rochaix has remained, throughout this cycle, provocative and challenging. Rather than discussing eccentricities, one leaves pondering the meaning of each scene in this mighty tetralogy. That is, I think, the highest compliment any ``Ring'' can be paid. It is a cycle one would willingly re-encounter frequently. (In fact, the next performances are slated for 1989.)

No ``Ring'' can have its full impact without acceptable singing. In Seattle, general director Speight Jenkins has shrewdly mixed local favorites (Roger Roloff as Wotan and Linda Kelm as Br"unnhilde) with newcomers (Gabor Andrasy as Hagen, Toni Kr"amer as Siegfried) to come up with a cast that may not be 100 percent of one's dreams, but allows for a true ``Ring'' experience nonetheless.

I was especially impressed with the Mime of Hubert Delamboye - the finest I've seen on any stage. And Mr. Andrasy's Hagen was a marvel of histrionic dignity (rather than the lurchingly sinister approach more commonly found) and of impressively dark yet smooth bass voice. Mr. Kr"amer's is about as good a Siegfried as we are going to get today - his tenor has size and staying power, as well as, unfortunately, the burly unevenness that this sort of occasionally beefed-up singing induces. Young John Del Carlo made a full-voiced, imposing Gunther. Again, I must cite Julian Patrick, the remarkable Alberich, and Diane Curry, this time a substantial Waltraute.

Mr. Roloff's Wanderer in ``Siegfried'' was the least successful of his three Wotan performances. It sounded as if he were having an off-night. Miss Kelm, on the other hand, delivered a stunningly good Br"unnhilde in ``Siegfried.'' In ``G"otterd"ammerung,'' she faded somewhat in the second act but recouped in a rousing ``Immolation Scene.''

Conductor Hermann Michael remained uneven in this, his first ``Ring.'' At its best, the conception was grand and majestic; at its worst, rather prosaic. The orchestra played magnificently for him, and the chorus produced the requisite full-throated tones in ``G"otterd"ammerung.''

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