In German opera, the greatest challenge to designers and directors is mounting a new production of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, not only because it involves a sequence of four operas, totaling some 16 hours of performance. The major problem is how to eclipse what has been done before. This is especially true at the Bayreuth Festival, founded by Wagner in 1876, with a purpose-built theatre to provide a unique showcase for his works.

With the resumption of the annual festival after World War II, the brothers Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner - dedicated to Modernist innovations in design, staging, and technology - chose to call Bayreuth a "workshop." The distinctive style of Wieland Wagner's idiosyncratic designs and stagings of his grandfather's operas became known as "New Bayreuth."

This had a profound influence on opera design and staging - and not only for Wagnerian music-drama - for several decades. After Wieland's untimely death, however, it became clear that startling and seminal new ideas would have to come from outside.

The "Chereau Ring" of 1976, largely designed by Richard Peduzzi, became a new standard of innovation and experiment. More recent Rings have been distinguished by the design insights of William Dudley, Hans Schavernoch, and the artist Rosalie, all of whom have been covered in TCI.

When Wolfgang Wagner announced that the new Millennium Ring would be staged by Jurgen Flimm, with sets designed by Erich Wonder, speculation was rampant. How could Wonder top the Ring he had already designed for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich?

Wonder's wonderful Munich Ring is virtually a space opera. The Father of the Gods, Wotan, is a spaceship Valhalla commander, soaring in the stratosphere, looking down on Planet Earth below. Munich audiences get to share these views with him. Wotan's daughters and women warriors, the Valkyries, zip into the spaceship on rocket-powered scooters - quite an update from the winged horses Wagner envisioned.

Obviously Wonder could not be more futuristic than this, nor did he want to try.

Working with Flimm - former director of Hamburg's Thalia Theatre, noted for the human quality of his productions - Wonder has concentrated on creating a series of interrelated scenes, in which basic set and prop elements reappear throughout the four operas. This not only emphasizes continuity, but it is the major indicator of a design style.

Flimm says the Ring should be seen not as four operas, but as a play in four acts. And, because he views the Ring as a very contemporary and cautionary saga, "of a world ruined by corruption and unscrupulousness, a world of political careers, full of lust for power and murderous conflicts between generations," he and Wonder have devised an almost Postmodernist landscape in which to play out this tragedy of gods and mankind.

As Flimm and his dramaturgs have noted, "A dramaturgy of locations determines the scenic landscape." In the first - and shortest - opera, Das Rheingold, Wonder and costume designer Florence Von Gerkan seem to have begun visually where Patrice Chereau and Peduzzi left off in 1976, with a fantastic mixture of myth and industrial revolution. In the new Bayreuth Ring, Wotan is still lusting for power, to keep what he has and seize even more. But his wardrobe, and those of his fellow gods, has been updated to the Edwardian era, at least in the prologue opera of Rheingold. In the following three operas, when considerable time has passed, fashions of the 30s and of today mingle comfortably.

Flimm's emphasis in staging is not on Wagner's larger-than-life characterizations in his music and libretto, but rather on the all-too-human frailties of gods and men, as revealed in the actions and passions of the singer/actors. The result, both visually and emotionally for the audience, is of an abstracted Modernist reality, populated by people they can recognize from TV and the daily headlines.

For the initial scene - with the three Rhine maidens frolicking at the bottom of the River Rhine - Wonder has devised three ancient shipwrecks for their antics. They wear smart raincoats over their snug bathing suits. At the end of the Cycle, when the golden ring is finally returned to them, a projection shows the Rhine bed laden with sunken World War II battleships.

The evil dwarf, Alberich - there's no political correctness in Wagner - is mocked when he tries to get laid by the seductive guardians of the golden treasure. So he rejects love for power - as does Wotan - and carries off the magic gold in an Aldi bag. Throughout the Cycle, Flimm and his designers make a strong visual point of the pairings of contrasting characters like Wotan and Alberich, Siegmund and Hunding, and Siegfried and Hagen.

For such a short opera, Rheingold contains several important locations and a lot of action. Wotan and his family of gods, looking like wealthy Edwardians, are discovered on the construction site of skyscraper Valhalla. Tables with architectural plans stand before a scrim showing the incomplete high-rise. Entrances made behind it, down scaffolding steps, are visible, suggesting the insubstantiality of Wotan's plans and schemes.

The invention of the elevator made skyscrapers feasible, a fact not lost on Wonder. Even in the depths of the Rhine, there is an elevator car on a track reaching up into the flies. This is a design element that reoccurs.

As in Wagner's libretto, there is a serious financial crisis for Wotan & Co. Cost-overruns mean he cannot pay the builders, the giants Fasolt and Fafner. Wotan has to let them take his wife Fricka's sister, Freia, as a hostage against final payment. Without her mythical golden apples, the gods promptly age, verging rapidly on decrepitude.

Loge, the trickster God of Fire, urges Wotan to go deep into the earth to take the Rheingold from his opposite, Alberich. Loge's costume is the epitome of an Edwardian sporting gent. Flames run down his arms, and smoke streams out of his briefcase, like a plume of exhaust. He cavorts like a music-hall comedian.

Taking the elevator down to Niebelheim, Wotan and Loge find Alberich - in a three - piece suit - at his rolltop desk in an office set up in a cargo container. On either side, dwarfs - in what look like radiation-safe uniforms - feverishly sort pieces of raw gold at individual work tables.

When Alberich has been tricked and tied up by his devious visitors, he's forced to give up his horde of gold, plus the newly forged ring and the cloth of invisibility, the Tarnhelm. To deliver the treasure to the surface, Wonder has provided an opening of a mineshaft, complete with a tracks and small flat-bed freight wagons to transport the sacks of gold. This trackage even has a turntable, so Fafner can scoot his loot offstage, after murdering his brother. The ruins of the rail system turn up again in Siegfried, when Wotan returns to earth as the Wanderer to see how his grandson is developing.

To emphasize the parallels between Wotan and Alberich - whose son Hagen will later murder Siegfried and blast all of Wotan's hopes of power, even of survival - Flimm has added a young prep-school Hagen to the cast, something Wagner neglected to do. Of course, he is mute, but Von Gerkan has outfitted him with regulation blue blazer and chinos. Apparently, while Siegfried has been learning to forge swords in the cave of the evil dwarf, Mime, young Hagen has been coming back home to Alberich's underworld lair on weekends for help with his math.

A big disappointment for Wagnerite traditionalists in most modern Ring productions is the lack of a visible or recognizable rainbow bridge from Earth to Valhalla. Rosalie suggested one with strings of brightly colored plastic pails suspended overhead. Wonder has actually indicated the bridge, but it is too far upstage and too dim to be easily seen. This could be corrected next summer, as changes are always made from year to year. But this visual vagueness - evident in Wonder's fuzzily painted backdrops for some other scenes - seems a conscious choice.

In the second opera, Die Walkure, Wotan's earthly twin children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, discover each other in Hunding's hut. Sieglinde is married to the warrior Hunding, and her previously unknown brother is on the run. Wonder's interior is anything but a hut, but it does have an immense tree growing in it - as specified in the Niebelung Saga. The tree, now bent and crooked, turns up again in Mime's cave. In the final opera, it is only some shards of burnt roots.

For a simple hunter-gatherer, Hunding seems to live in a very elegant white conservatory, with tall, jalousied windows. Martha Stewart could have been his design consultant. The white furniture could have come from Ikea, as could Wotan's Modernist office furniture in Valhalla. Curiously, in addition to the large tree - with the magic sword Nothung stuck in it - clumps of reeds are also growing inside along the wall. This emphasizes the close connection with nature of these primitive mythical characters.

When the incestuous twins declare their love, the back wall of the room flies up out of sight. Wagner specified "Spring" in the background, a visual metaphor for their newfound love. Wonder's painted background drape is dark and murky, more like "Night on Bald Mountain."

Meanwhile, back in Wotan's Oval Office in Valhalla - complete with document shredder, computer monitor, mobile phones, and water-cooler - an angry but businesslike Fricka confronts Wotan with a dossier about the twins and his extra-marital infidelities. These violations of his own divine laws - and of the sanctity of the family - has got to stop, or the gods are finished! She is smartly but sensibly attired, and he is the model of a top CEO. She could be a Republican fundamentalist, giving George W. Bush a piece of her mind. Wotan subsequently shreds her dossier.

Later, this space - defined by a curving wall upstage and a matching elliptical curve track downstage - is converted to the Valkyries' rocky lair. The wall is pierced by six vertical apertures, although there are eight flying female warriors, so two have to double up to sing from the heights.

Obviously, Wonder wouldn't give them old-fashioned Wagnerian winged horses to fly through the heavens, or repeat his Munich rocket scooters. Instead, they rappel down from the flies, like Furies on bungee cords. Although Wagner specified only eight of them - plus sister Brunnhilde - Flimm and his designers have outfitted a small platoon of apprentice Valkyries. There are no ballets in the Ring, but Flimm has the women do close-order military drills to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."

The dead heroes they bring to Valhalla look like a long, dazed line of the dead from Saving Private Ryan, dressed in World War II uniforms. The women take helmets and weapons from them, piling them in a heap upstage. Wotan later takes a helmet and breastplate from this pile to protect the sleeping Brunnhilde.

The Valkyries all seem to have perpetual bad hair days, with immense tangles of wild hair. Their outfits appear a mixture of mountain climber, space cadet, and army surplus garb. Unfortunately, Brunnhilde's outfit makes her look fat, inflated, almost like the Michelin Tire Man. When she sheds it, though, she seems in great shape!

Von Gerkan is, in fact, a resourceful user of "found" costume elements. Siegfried's rough trousers are actually Swedish motor biker pants she found in a New York flea market. Sporting a buzzcut, Siegfried looks rather like a stocky Peter Sellars, the opera director. This may be an inside joke, but his costume, appearance, and boorish behavior angered some Wagnerites, who mistakenly believe Siegfried is an ideal hero. He is anything but.

The American Southwest may have had some influence on a drape - covering the curved wall upstage - that Wonder designed for the desperate flight of Siegmund and Sieglinde, pursued by Hunding. With low mountains in the distance, it has long rows of fenceposts with a central vanishing point. A later, similar drape is a sunset montage of rows of posts stretching into infinity.

When Wotan puts Brunnhilde to sleep on a mountaintop, surrounded by the Magic Fire, Wonder suggests this by having two hinged sides of a giant curved golden screen close, resembling somewhat the ship-funnel form of Valhalla's exterior. In fact, in the final moments of the Cycle, some critics were struck with the similarity of the ovoid tower and the forward smokestack of the Titanic - another construction headed for disaster.

At the beginning of Gotterdammerung, elements of Hunding's interior decoration are still in place, including the white chairs and the swamp reeds. The Three Norns, in long gowns and white turbans, measure out the red thread of human life. But they also have very long-handled ladles - not for eating soup with the Devil, but for dipping water out of a rectangular spring, which later becomes a hearth.

When Siegfried ends his Rhine journey at the Hall of the Gibichungs, he has clearly arrived in Silicon Valley. The hall is a great Postmodern glass house of three floors, thronged with smartly dressed office workers and middle management types.

Hagen organizes a hunting party in Siegfried's honor. The company executives - in their tan, brown, and gray three - piece suits - are equipped with automatic pistols and folding stools, useful when Siegfried stops to sing of his heroic deeds.

Wagner suggested the return of the ring - with the Rhine overflowing its banks - as a rebirth of the earth, a return to natural order. Flimm and his designers have quite a different vision, but it is also one of hope and promise. Harry Kupfer ended his Bayreuth Ring with a little boy and girl with flashlights coming through the curtain onto the dark forestage, searching into the future. The new Bayreuth Ring offers hope of a more mythical/historical kind. A blond boy in full medieval armor stands silently onstage. He is the youthful knight and redeemer Parsifal. This visual footnote could spark a dangerous trend: Performing Wagner's Parsifal as a fifth sequence of the Ring Cycle, which would then make the saga over 21 hours long!

At the Bayreuth Rathaus during the festival, Wonder showed some wildly colorful and abstracted paintings he calls "Siegfried's Memory." His canvas suggesting the dragon showed the chaotically tumbled coaches of an ICE super-train after a crash. That is an image he might want to develop. Two paintings evoking the relationships between Wotan and Brunnhilde and Siegfried and Brunnhilde both show two flaming jets colliding in midair. Obviously, this kind of imagery is too far out for the human scale of Jurgen Flimm - who is the new director of theatre at the Salzburg Festival and president of the German Theatre Association.

Gero Zimmermann, Bayreuth's long-time tech director, who is now departing, notes that the shops do not necessarily build everything that is designed. Some set props and scenes for the Chereau Ring were passed over. For the Peter Hall/Bill Dudley Ring, some models and plans were not ready in time. And, despite Erich Wonder's obvious ingenuity, over 15% of his designs were not executed, says Zimmermann. The reasons include cost, but also the problem of limited storage for all the sets and props of the operas in the summer repertory.