Episode Zero

Photo by Alen MacWeeney
THE TIMING WAS PERFECT: "EPISODE I" of the Bay Area's own George Lucas' Star Wars packing the movie palaces worldwide; Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung as the San Francisco Opera's hot-ticket item for most of last month at the War Memorial Opera House. Can such occurrences be mere coincidence?

The overlap of plot gadgetry should surprise nobody. It's not that Lucas has shamelessly cribbed from Wagner's own shamelessly cribbed rip-off of a tangle of mythic archetypes. What Wagner accomplished within the vast reaches of his stupendous panorama comes down to us, in all its throat-clutching sublimity and almighty bluster, as Romanticism writ large, the epitome of an era when giants roamed and mortals aspired toward immortality. The Lucas version -- the aspiration to own the world's greatest toy shop and other toy shops as yet unbuilt -- may be different, but its hordes of operatives are strikingly similar. That Siegfried ("very young, very handsome, very stupid," in the words of that other Wagnerian immortal, Anna Russell) serves as exact avatar to Luke Skywalker needs no proof from this corner. Nor do the ultimate confrontation between Siegfried/Luke and Wotan/Darth, the business with hero and heroine as twins (all-purpose gimmick in many mythologies), the hero/heroine's eternal sleep on the rock (Han Solo actually becomes a rock) -- and, in the latest episode, the evil emperor turning up as a phantom (as does Alberich in Götterdämmerung) with his army of clattering Nibelungs/Droids. Both cycles, from a list that also embraces the Homeric epics, Finland's Kalevala, Beowulf, and on and on, plumb the resonances on which the world has always turned and always will.

It is in the matter of titillation, however, that Wagner and Lucas are most easily told apart. John Williams' Star Wars music is a model of efficiency, admirable on its own nitwit level. There are tunes happy, sad, triumphant and heroic, and they come back often enough, unchanged in size and shape, so that even if you've ducked out for popcorn you won't lose your place in the story. Wagner is different; even the Valkyries' famous "Ride," in which the two composers might be thought shaking hands, is a marvel of orchestral subtlety beyond anything in the Williams vocabulary. Hearing the Ring in San Francisco -- the four parts in a mere six days -- brought on the awareness, stronger than in any of my previous dozen or so immersions, of the music's cumulative power, unlike anything else in the operatic world, more like the tensile strengths within a Beethoven symphony. Plunge in anywhere, follow any line of dramatic unfolding, from the murky depths in Das Rheingold to the blazing catastrophe 15 hours later; the screw turns until you could pardonably want to scream. I had thought it might be a good idea, after a confrontation with all that splendid urgency, to do a little ear cleaning on the homeward drive; I brought along the tapes of Mozart's Figaro for the purpose. Instead, I could not clear my head, at any time during seven hours on the 101, of the overpowering dissonance as the leitmotif of Wotan's Valhalla -- so lean and triumphant as the great castle is first built, so heartbreaking as Sieglinde tells of the unknown guest at her wedding, so weedy and dust-covered as the sad, aged Wotan wanders the world asking questions -- crashes into the incandescence of Brünnhilde's funeral pyre and leaves a spellbound audience to choke on magnificence beyond words.

EVEN WITH THE WELL-KNOWN CURRENT paucity of singers comparable to the luminaries of the past -- Flagstad and Melchior once, Nilsson and Vickers later -- the Ring has never been more popular. In the 1970s the Seattle Opera joined hands with an airline and a swath of local merchants to surround a wretchedly staged and poorly performed production with a sense that the city had turned into both Bayreuth and Valhalla; Wagner T-shirts, scores and albums were everywhere on view. Poor as it was -- it was later replaced by superior goods -- Seattle's Ring turned the work into news, and into an inevitable repertory item even where forbearance might have been a wiser course.

Despite its few genuine peaks, the San Francisco revival of its Ring, first given complete in 1985 and revived in 1990, falls under that latter rubric. The cycle was given four times, with two casts and conductors. The first cycle had the magic fire of Jane Eaglen's Brünnhilde and the overwhelming, vulnerable eloquence of James Morris' Wotan (as in 1985), with the company's supremely able music director, Donald Runnicles, to stir the company's so-so orchestra into a semblance of majesty. Deborah Voigt was the eloquent, moving Sieglinde in both casts, but the second ensemble bore the affliction of the gruff, nearly unlistenable Siegfried of George Gray, Frances Ginzer's intelligent but small-scale Brünnhilde and, worst of all, Michael Boder's featureless conducting under which the orchestra sounded as if playing in its sleep, snores and all. Andrei Serban, madcap man-of-many-stages, had come on to update director Nikolaus Lehnhoff's original plan, which I remember as adequate but unremarkable. There were no atrocities this time around, either; I liked (but many didn't) the idea of ending the cycle with the surviving Alberich posed like some enormous pink rat atop the ruined Valhalla, thereby suggesting the possibility of another 15-hour go-around. Are you there, George Lucas?

IN BETWEEN CAME THE FINAL EVENT IN the San Francisco Symphony's Stravinsky Festival, a program mostly of sacred works (plus the Symphonies of Wind Instruments) given in the echo-infested Grace Cathedral, whose booming, reflecting surfaces dulled the iridescent orchestration in the Canticum Sacrum and the vast, elegant spaciousness in the Symphony of Psalms (the evening's one masterpiece). San Francisco's idyll with its beloved MTT goes on unabated; I can't think of a better instance of the right conductor for the right town. He wooed the crowd (capacity, need I add) with saccharine "Stravinsky-'n'-Me" verbal pomposities; with his approximately 10-foot-long fingers he made you think he was conducting, personally and individually, every member of chorus, orchestra and audience. The music came out hard, clean and -- if such can be imagined for Stravinsky at his most dry-point -- sexy. I knew it was all wrong, and I tried hard to hate it, but I couldn't.

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