`THE Ring of the Nibelungs'' is one of the most all-encompassing - and exhausting - achievements of Western culture. That is not merely an assessment of Richard Wagner's effort; it is also a warning to those who may take the idea of sitting through four nights and nearly 18 hours of German opera a bit too lightly. The opera companies presenting this masterwork have no need of packing the hall with music-lovers who may not realize what they are getting into. Productions of the ``Ring'' cycle regularly sell out; Some die-hard Ringophiles are willing to travel halfway around the planet and pay scalpers' fees to sit through a production of the complete ``Der Ring des Nibelungen'' (to use the German title), such as the one presented twice during the past two weeks by the Deutsche Oper Berlin at Washington's Kennedy Center, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany.
All of which ceases to be a mystery to those who, for the first time, steel themselves to endure this operatic marathon. When the four operas of the complete ``Ring'' cycle are presented in sequence, Wagner's work emerges as a titanic and deeply moving tale of the lust for power, of self-sacrifice, of Armageddon, and ultimately of redemption.
To those ends, the ``Ring'' traffics extensively in those dramatic staples of sex and violence. But, somehow, the whole work rises above its limitations, above the incestuous passions, the dreary longeurs and puerile word-games in which Wagner revelled. It is a quintessential masterpiece - a work to be pondered, one which, more than a century after its first performance, leaves audiences alternately exhilarated and disturbed.
In the Deutsche Oper production, stage director Goetz Friedrich has attempted mostly to elicit the latter reaction. The ``Ring''is perfectly acceptable as a set piece; the Metropolitan Opera's traditional bearskin-and-breastplate cycle, also offered this spring, presents the ``Ring'' as most people think of it, with immensely satisfying results, and without diluting any of its power.
But Mr. Friedrich's ideas are both bracing and sobering; his ``Ring'' constitutes a brutal indictment of civilization and the human motives that drive it. His production forces one to approach Wagner's magnum opus anew.
The ``Ring'' cycle - based on Scandavian mythology - concerns a race of underground dwarves (the Nibelungen), two powerful and evil giants (Fasolt and Fafner), a cast of warrior-maidens (Valkyries), and a family of quarrelsome gods and goddesses, led by a corrupt and sexually profligate patriarch, head-god, Wotan.
In the first opera, ``Das Rheingold,'' the Nibelung Alberich steals a horde of magic gold from the bottom of the Rhine and fashions part of it into a ring that gives infinite power to anyone who posssess it. Later, Wotan contracts with Fasolt and Fafner to build him a magnificent castle, Valhalla. When it comes time to pay up, Wotan steals the gold from Alberich, who puts a curse on the ring. The two giants accept the gold and the ring as payment. But Fafner kills Fasolt for it. Thus the cycle goes.
In ``Die Walk"ure,'' the second opera, we are confronted with Wotan's illegitimate offspring: the twins Siegfried and Singlinde and the Valkeries. Siegmund and Singlinde happen upon each other, realize they're twins, and have an incestuous affair. That enrages Fricka, the goddess of virtue, who persuades Wotan to have Siegmund killed. Eventually, Br"unnhilde defies her father, Wotan, and runs off to find a hiding place for Singlinde, who is now pregnant with Siegfried. When Wotan finds out, he puts Br"unnhilde into a deep sleep, from which she can be awakened only by a hero who can brave the fires with which he has encircled her resting place.
By the time the last two operas roll around, Wotan's sins have come home to roost. Siegfried, the title character of the third opera, grows up, slays Fafner (who has since become a dragon) to win the gold for himself, finds Br"unnhilde, and runs off with her. In the final installment, ``G"otterd"ammerung'' (or ``Twilight of the Gods'') Br"unnhilde and Siegfried break up, because of a sequence of misunderstandings only magic - and opera - can account for. Siegfried is stabbed in the back by Hagen, the son of Alberich. Br"unnhilde rides her horse into the funeral pyre; the flames incinerate Valhalla; and the Rhine rises to reclaim the gold.
Do they live happily ever after? That is the question posed by Wagner, and the one Friedrich seems to answer with a resounding no. The staging for the entire cycle takes place in a time tunnel that Friedrich has said was inspired by the vaulting subway stations of the Washington Metro and the more claustrophobic confines of the London Underground. Though the sets change through the course of four operas, the rather bleak and foreboding surroundings remain the same.
After the flames consume Valhalla and the Rhine retakes the gold - in this production as clever a bit of stagecraft as this writer has ever seen - the scene shifts quickly to the opening of ``Das Rheingold.'' The gods are draped in white, ready to repeat the whole sequence again. After so much devastation and pain, the production seemed to suggest that nothing has changed. No new order would replace the old, corrupt one. In the indiscriminate destruction of the good and the ugly, the ugly has survived.
The production was, suggested Friedrich, a metaphor for the German experience in this century, an experience twisted by a political leader for whom Wagner represented the paragon of German culture. A presentation of Wagner such as this seems a peculiar tribute to the anniversary of the founding of the FRG - a new order, after all, founded on the ashes of an old one.