Over a century after its premiere in 1876, Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, the elephantine four-opera cycle that single-handedly keeps "tetralogy" in the dictionary, remains audacious and compelling.

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Great musicians, from J. S. Bach and the Beatles to the Velvet Underground and Anton Webern, build a universe big enough to spend a lifetime absorbing, exploring, and adoring. What makes Richard Wagner (1813–1883) different is that his still-potent Ring hammers you over the course of a week. With a running time of over 16 hours, Wagner's magnum opus not only kidnaps you into a self-contained universe of gods, dwarves, giants, treasure, gold, love, lust, and betrayal, but plunges you into the part-time job of seeing it through and sorting it all out.

Reviews of The Ring directly reflect the ambition of the reviewer. Visionary writers couple a plot summary—Wotan (AKA "Light Alberich") steals an all-powerful ring from a dwarf ("Dark Alberich") in order to pay a pair of giants for building Valhalla, the home of the gods, which dooms the gods to destruction—with a new or clever allegorical interpretation. The old standbys seem the most plausible to me: The ring itself signifies the gradual transformation (or better yet, "reification") of gold into capital (along with its attendant "ism"); the death of the gods represents the shift from monarchy to Wagner's vague, idealized socialism.

Most writers simply mention that Wagner's innovation of leitmotifs—recurring melodic fragments associated with the opera's main characters (which includes the sword Nothung)—is a common device in movie music and get on with the business of whether or not the show is worth seeing. It is.

The first opera, Das Rheingold, begins with the Rhine Maidens swimming in a beautifully blurry wash of green and turquoise light. Suspended from wires, the maidens cavort and sing, helpfully explaining the gold's magical powers. As an opera conductor and music director of a small theater, Wagner understood the importance of exposition; throughout The Ring characters ruminate, complain, and bicker, which means that if you can follow sung German (a wholly separate skill from speaking or reading the language) or read the supertitles, the plot is easy to follow. The star of the scene, and indeed the entire night, was Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) who romped around the set, climbing, rolling, and falling all while singing superbly.

Die Walküre opens in a sylvan wood with a house built around two large ash trees. Unlike the High Modernist productions at Bayreuth and elsewhere that employ spare sets, posterized lighting, lasers, and other abstract devices, Seattle Opera's Ring is resolutely naturalistic. The gods wear clean medieval-style clothes (some lined with red, the color of Wotan and his offspring) and walk through the woods, crouch in caves, and climb rocks. Siegmund, bastard son of Wotan and father of the hero Siegfried, was ably sung by tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele, however Margaret Jane Wray's emphatic Sieglinde sent chills up my spine as did her soon-to-be killed husband, Hunding (the stentorian Stephen Milling). Both voices filled the hall, ringing and rumbling along the walls.

Of all four operas, I don't know why I like Siegfried best. Maybe it's the clowning interplay between the happy-go-lucky Siegfried and the devious dwarf Mime. Short and stocky with an intermittently lolling tongue, Thomas Harper's Mime shuffles, scurries, and toadies with sycophantic glee; I'll never forget his jazz hands when singing "Fafner und Siegfried/Siegfried und Fafner." I also dig Fafner the Dragon, whose foaming mouth, glowering voice, and lumbering appearance heeds the Seventh Law of Opera: One set or other scenic property shall be dazzling, eliciting oohs and ahhs from the audience. I was disappointed by the fire guarding the summit of Brünnhilde's mountain; it needs to be taller and threatening.

Alan Woodrow's Siegfried was convincingly and consistently noble, carefree, and dimwitted. I was moved by his death in Götterdämmerung. The two other principals, Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and Brünnhilde (Jane Eaglen) were uneven. Sometimes Grimsley seemed underpowered or swamped by the orchestra, yet when it counts (like in scene two of Die Walküre when he intones "The End.") he delivered the goods. Eaglen has lost a bit of luster at the top end, though her middle to low register sounds as rich and full as her Isolde in 1998. And how to describe the voice of the scene-stealing Erda/First Norn (Ewa Podles)? A husky growl laced with a ghostly moan, and, like The Ring, unforgettable. Christopher DeLaurenti

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Although sold out, a handful of tickets to The Ring are available on ebay.com as well as from those hawking tickets in front of the venue (McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St, 389-7676) before each performance, although you should always be careful when purchasing tickets from anyone other than venue-sanctioned dealers. Check seattleopera.org for the full schedule and availability of standing-room tickets.

You can also tune into KING 98.1 FM and hear Die Walküre Sat Aug 20 at 7 pm; Siegfried Sat Aug 27 at 7 pm; and Götterdämmerung Sat Sept 3 at 6 pm.