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'Ring' cycle lords it over music fans

LIFE is full of choices, few starker than this: on a sunny June day would you rather stroll along the Danube River or sit for five hours in a darkened hall listening to a very large soprano belt out Wagner?

For Harald Blumauer, 66, a retired executive of Volvo trucks from Vienna, Austria, and tens of thousands of people around the world just like him, it's no contest: they choose Brunnhilde.

"It's always a new adventure," said Blumauer, who had seen 10 versions of German romantic composer Richard Wagner's 15-hour, four-opera cycle, plus countless performances of individual operas, before taking in another new cycle in a Budapest production this month.

Real expert

"You found a real expert in Wagner here," his wife Christa said helpfully, explaining her husband's passion during intermission in the Hungarian capital's Bela Bartok Concert Hall, alongside the Danube, sun blazing outside.

"He goes to the opera often, sometimes for just one act."

Why would people trek the globe, like Wagner's wandering god character Wotan, in search of the perfect "Ring?"

Maybe it's similar to what drives "Da Vinci Code" tourists to poke around churches and museums in the footsteps of novelist Dan Brown's fictional symbologist Robert Langdon. Or perhaps it's like those Grateful Dead fans who, lore has it, attended every concert the San Francisco rock band ever gave.

For conductor Adam Fischer, 59, the guiding force behind Budapest's "Ring," it's just great theater and music and so when you mount a new "Ring," audiences will come, from far and wide.

"This is very exciting and very intense music and if it is boring - because you think 15 hours are boring - then it's our fault," he said.

Fischer has conducted the cycle three times in Bayreuth, Germany, the holy temple of Wagner which the composer purpose built to stage his operas, so he gets Bayreuth singers to work in a production that takes a very distinct approach.

"There's an expression in German, 'spar flamme' or 'spare flame'," Fischer said. "We don't do 'spar flamme' here."

Music takes center stage in this staging, now in its second year, in a new hall with a "live" acoustic where every word and note comes through crystal clear, and often thunderously loud.

Although it is more than a century old, Fischer sees the "Ring" as a fable for our times. "It's about too much borrowed money, it's the same story," he said referring to the plot - such as it is - in which the downfall of the gods is assured when they get giants to build a new palace that chief god Wotan pays for with stolen Rhine gold.

"There's a Hungarian expression which means 'to build a house that even gods can't afford'," Fischer said. "That happens, and that is what everybody has in this country, and every second or third house in America."

Hungary has been hit hard by the financial meltdown and its economy is expected to shrink by almost 7 percent this year.

Although he is Jewish, Fischer is not too troubled by Wagner's well-documented anti-Semitism.

Fischer notes that some of Wagner's foremost champions today are Jewish conductors.

"So it's a Jewish music," he said with a laugh.

The Austrian stage director, Hartmut Schorghofer, 45, reinterprets the work for a concert hall with a smaller and less versatile stage than an opera house, making extensive use of video imagery and other modern effects.

"To make this total theater we have singers, we have dancers, we have puppets, we have video - we have all this on stage, but in a really concentrated space," he said.

It is meant to appeal to a generation at ease with video screens and possibly familiar with the puppetry in "The Lion King," but it gives pride of place to the music and singing.

"What we do is 'kammerspiel,' it is like a chamber work," Schorghofer said. "You are really near the singers and they are as if naked on stage because they have no place to hide."

Does it work for the opera's real "gods" - the audience?

For Sophia Zubor, 17, from the western Hungarian city of Szombathely, attending with secondary school classmates who would seem to be in the target age group, it didn't.

"The staging was strange, a bit too modern," she said. "The music is quite good but I would have preferred a simpler thing, with traditional costumes."


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