Wagner's Ring Cycle Exerts a Mythic Pull On Fans and Performers

The Chicago Lyric's production gets at the elemental forces

IN a climactic scene midway through Richard Wagner's epic ''The Ring'' now at Chicago's Lyric Opera, the young hero, Siegfried, must split an anvil with a mighty sword forged to capture the power-giving ring.

But recently as the orchestra dashed into a furious prestissimo, Siegfried raised the glowing steel, brought it crashing down upon the anvil - and bent the sword.

Two acts later, Siegfried's sword again sliced the air and missed shattering chief god Wotan's spear. With great presence of mind, Wotan broke the spear over his own knee.

''Siegfried was singing, he spaced out,'' says technical director Drew Landmesser, pacing amid towering pillars and airborne horses in the Lyric's cavernous backstage.

Minor mishaps, however, detract little from the overall excellence of the Lyric's first full-cycle Ring. Indeed, just as Wagner's Nordic gods display mortal frailties, it seems fitting that such an Olympian production contains a distinctly human mix of sublimity and imperfection, solemnity and humor, intensity and silliness.

Wagner (1813-1883) himself was a man of troubling contradictions, according to students of his operas.

A determined reformer of operatic style, Wagner struggled with poverty and bitter public criticism as he wrote ''music dramas,'' stories woven with vivid leitmotifs, or ''deeds of music made visible.'' His most extensive work, the 15-1/2-hour ''Der Ring des Nibelungen,'' was finally performed at Bayreuth, Germany, in 1876, 28 years after its conception.

Based on Scandinavian legends, the prologue and three operas - ''Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold),'' ''Die Walkure (The Valkyrie),'' ''Siegfried,'' and ''Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods)'' - center around a magic ring made from the Rhine gold and the curse it brought to all who owned it.

Driven by greed, men and gods renounce love to pursue the wealth and power bestowed by the golden ring. In the end, domestic chaos among Wotan's family and earthly clans destroys the world. The ultimate solution, Wagner suggests, is redemption through love.

Ironically, music historians say Wagner should have taken the ring's moral lesson more to heart in his private life.

''One has to temper Wagner's dramatic genius with his anti-Semitism, his megalomaniac views of culture, his vision of the German nation, and him as a person,'' says Berthold Hoeckner, a University of Chicago professor and expert on 19th-century German music.

For most fans of Wagnerian opera, however, the riveting, richly flowing score outweighs the composer's flaws.

''It's a bonding thing,'' says Art Clifton, president and founder of the Chicago Wagner Society.

The Lyric's three Ring cycles, which sold out last summer, started March 11 and will run until March 30. They are expected to draw 10,500 people from 22 countries and 50 states. Subscriptions were sold only for complete cycles, a week of Wagner immersion for opera mavens.

''The music, poetry, acting, costumes, and story - no other operatic composer has done it with the complexity of Wagner,'' raves Diane Ross, an artist from Santa Barbara, Calif., attending her seventh Ring performance. ''I like the intricate thought process you need to be involved with Wagner. Each time you hear it you are more aware of the motifs.''

Conductor Zubin Mehta has inspired critics, the audience, and performers alike with his poised ability to keep score and drama in balance. ''He is the heart of this Ring. The orchestra has come up a notch for him,'' says cast member Martha Jane Howe.

The assembled cast of world-class Wagnerian stars includes bass-baritone James Morris (Wotan), soprano Eva Marton (Brunnhilde), and tenor Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegfried). Graham Clark's cackling, cunning dwarf Mime, bass Matti Salminen as the darkly foreboding Hagen, and Morris's robustly intoned Wotan have been highlights of the production so far.

Still, even serious Wagner lovers admit that the marathon four-hour-long operas require some coping strategies. They suggest arriving mentally rested by taking the day off from work and bringing nuts to nibble on. It is de rigueur to stand during intermission.

Cast members, too, say they seek relief from the all-out exertion required by Wagner's score through playful improvisation on stage and outright giddiness during rehearsals.

''The music demands that you sing from every cell of your body, it pulls the absolute maximum that you have to offer,'' says Howe, one of the Valkyrie maidens. ''Rehearsals can get exceedingly silly because we have to balance the potency of the music - otherwise we'd go crazy,'' she says, describing how Marton tickles other singers with her spear before performances.

The production team, led by director August Everding and designer John Conklin, also expresses an admirable sense of perspective on staging the immense and complex Ring.

''This is like doing 'Fiddler on the Roof,' 'Sunset Boulevard,' the 'Follies,' and 'Phantom of the Opera' all at once in the same theater,'' Landmesser says. The $6.5-million venture involves thousands of props and light cues and more than 500 people - from stagehands and musicians to wig designers, he says.

In contrast to Ring cycles in New York and Seattle, the Lyric's Ring unfolds on a highly abstract set. Limited by a relatively small stage, the designer uses stark, symbolic scenery such as circles and triangles of neon light to suggest the drama's elemental forces.

Evoking a simple cage or game board, the set frames the characters' fated moves without cluttering the viewers' imagination.

Like the dwarf Alberich's curse, however, design problems have not escaped the Lyric's Ring. For example, in its first incarnation, the symbolic lump of gold that hovers over the Rhine ''looked like a giant baked potato in gold tinfoil,'' says Landmesser. ''That went away - that night.''

Some critics and audience members also rolled their eyes at the bungee- jumping Rhine maidens in 'The Valkyrie,' who jump on trampolines while flinging comets and shaking spears.

''Those bungee cords were done to death,'' says Ross, ''like the flying horses in Seattle.''

Indeed, Seattle Opera director, Speight Jenkins, who oversaw the complete Ring cycle in 1991 and 1995, lived in terror of the ''unseemly laughter'' that would erupt should the hindquarters of one of the 80-pound flying horses slip down from the space above the stage and into the audience's view. Jenkins, a native of Texas, helped vent the pent-up humor that seems inherent in Ring extravaganzas in 1991 by commissioning ''Das Barbecu,'' a country-western spoof based in oil-rich Texas.

Part of the appeal of ''Das Barbecu,'' which has since been performed nationwide, grows out of how the audience identifies and connects with the Ring's powerful personalities, Jenkins says.

''Audiences get very personal with the Ring characters and story,'' he says. ''It's like a soap opera - with some of the greatest music ever composed.''

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