IN CITIES ACROSS the world, summer is the season for special events. Modest Avignon, Edinburgh, and Salzburg mount many-week festivals; even capitals such as New

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The big three

It takes some worldly visitors to make a "world class city."

IN CITIES ACROSS the world, summer is the season for special events. Modest Avignon, Edinburgh, and Salzburg mount many-week festivals; even capitals such as New York, London, Paris, and Vienna, culturally rich to bursting year-round, make special efforts in the months of sun. Not Seattle. Here, for the most part, residents go elsewhere for their pleasures; while the tourists are left to make do with the harbor cruises, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, and Ivar's Acres of Clams.

Every once in a while, though, as long as someone else provides the spark, we're allowed a glimpse of a different kind of summer scene. Ten years ago, thanks to Ted Turner, the Goodwill Games made such an effort, but public enthusiasm for more of the same soon faded for lack of leadership. This summer, purely by chance, we're offered another constellation of world-class attractions, the kind of once-in-a-decade—if not once-in-a-lifetime—special events needed to anchor a festival series: Big Art with Big Ambitions, with Big Ticket Prices to match.

Populists may frown, advocates of universal access fulminate; but the fact is, as great festi-vals everywhere demonstrate, the most nourishing atmosphere for small, independent, adventurous art is in the shade of such mighty efforts as those we're lucky enough to have here this summer.

The first summer-size event is the very definition of Big: Bolshoi, in Russian, means "big," and even under current straitened free-market conditions, the Bolshoi Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet is Bigness Unashamed. A crazy cross-breed between the Czarist tradition of high-budget court entertainment and Stalinist demands for uplifting entertainment for the masses, Romeo could easily have been an artistic stillbirth. Instead, more than 50 years after its first staging, it's looking like one of the defining stage works of the 20th century, thanks to Shakespeare's indestructible story, Sergei Prokofiev's vastly underrated gifts as a composer of dramatic music, and choreographer Leonid Lavrosky's brilliant balancing between the spectacle of Verona's streets and courts at carnival time and the private drama of the two love-doomed adolescents.

It takes 100-plus people onstage and backstage to make the mighty Romeo machine go. It also takes 70-odd musicians in the pit to do justice to Prokofiev's gorgeous but lung-busting score. And—devotees of the what's-in-it-for-us school of arts funding take note—all those musicians are local, recruited from the amazing nebula of studio aces, pit veterans, teachers, and professional-grade part-timers who orbit (and sometimes supplement) the full-time Seattle Symphony. Add in the 25 union stagehands it takes to run the show and the two dozen ushers to help the audience to their seats and you're looking at a nice chunk of change left behind when the company moves on.

A SURPRISING NUMBER of locals will also find employment when the summer's next big show rolls into town. Quebec's Cirque du Soleil is proudly self-contained, in the tradition of such traveling shows running back into the mists of time, but some things have changed with the ages. Performers for the most part put up in first-class hotels these days, not in their own private caravans. Cirque travels with its own air-conditioning and electrical systems, but it gratefully taps into local sanitation lines, and local roustabouts are hired to help raise and bring down the mighty multitent chapiteau housing the ensemble's performance, rehearsal, and life-support functions. Ushering, security, ticket sales, and promotion all are handled by local civilians, so those traveling with the tent can devote themselves full-time to art and high spectacle.

Those who saw Cirque's presentation here a decade ago during the Goodwill Games and who haven't encountered the group since may find themselves a little dazzled by their upcoming Seattle presentation, entitled Saltimbanco. Since its founding in 1984 by a loose collective of stilt-walking clowns, Cirque has evolved into a kind of entertainment multinational, with administrative offices on three continents; three shows currently on tour (four more performing in theaters specifically built to contain them for indefinite runs); a new studio, training, and production facility in the company's birth city Montr顬; and one of the most profitable, envied, and imitated brand images in the entire field of live entertainment.

In comparison to its decade-old sister show Nouvelle Exp鲩ence, Saltimbanco is a 3-D, wide-screen, Dolby-enhanced Surround Sound of a show. And it's the least technically sophisticated of Cirque shows still on the boards. (O, created as the centerpiece/entertainment attraction at the new Las Vegas resort complex Bellagio, requires a stage that can fill with water on cue, restricting its tourability mightily.) Despite its technical elaboration, of all Cirque's current presentations Saltimbanco remains perhaps closest to the group's humble circus roots. Anyone who fails to gasp and gasp again at the show's first-act finale is a candidate for the terminal-care ward. Yet at base the number is just a series of ever more extravagant answers to one simple question: Given a stout metal swing with a six-foot-long, 18-inch-wide "seat" and a dozen insanely daring gymnast clowns to use it as an aerial launching pad, how far out of a thousand heads can two thousand eyes be made to pop?

Saltimbanco, too, manages to avoid the preciosity that sometimes settles over patches of other Cirque productions: the coy, white-face-mime smugness that is as much a part of the Cirque brand as the Chinese-opera-elaborate makeup and designer tucks and tatters of the extravagant costumes (which serve the practical purpose of keeping a show's "look" pretty much the same no matter how long it tours and how many cast members are replaced). The grand finale of Saltimbanco, a vol-a-quatre for angelic beings soaring and sinking on elastic springs, could seem utterly twee, were it not for its sheer death-defying, life-enhancing physical virtuosity.

When Cirque is at its best, as it is in these two numbers, technique and expressivity, spectacle and soul blend into an experience beyond easy description. Sixty bucks (over twice that for premium VIP seats, which include eats, drinks, and souvenirs as part of the exp鲩ence) to see a circus? Talk to people who've been queuing up for Saltimbanco tickets since 1993; you won't hear any complaints.

OUR CIVIC INERTIA in mobilizing a summer event of more than local impact is all the more inexplicable because "private enterprise" already provides a perfect nucleus for such a pearl to grow on. Seattle Opera impresario Speight Jenkins has expertly leveraged the national and international attention focused on his company's periodic mounting of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung to make the Ring's intermittent late-summer time slot the occasion for Seattle Opera's highest-profile productions. By selling the production both as part of the regular season and promoting it to specialized audiences elsewhere, the company accrues the benefits of "festival buzz" without having to build a complete new audience base for the project.

This summer, of course, Jenkins & Co. have the main attraction back again. It's better than ever, in fact, thanks to the eminently buzz-worthy presence of the once-in-a-lifetime vocal phenomenon of Jane Eaglen performing in three of the four Ring segments, plus a design and production team that includes some of the hottest talents working the musical-theater circuit today: director Stephen Wadsworth, set designer Tom Lynch, costumier Martin Pakledinaz, lighting wizard Peter Kaczerowski, and, in the pit, legendary Wagnerian Armin Jordan.

Jenkins and his collaborators have been exceedingly cagey when answering questions about their "approach" to Wagner's 17-hour musical myth-marathon, and even cagier by leaking selected thoughts to build excitement about the show.

Director Wadsworth in particular knows how to tease our curiosity, floating thoughts about visual realism, psychological realism, and how one might productively frame one within the other. People who have seen the way Wadsworth has approached other Wagner works in the past, though, have better information to work from. For the 19th-century Norwegian fjord setting of The Flying Dutchman, he and designer Lynch came up with a vaguely contemporary dockside setting, with a moored fishing boat that wouldn't have looked out of place in 1950 Ballard.

For the emphatically medieval Lohengrin, their visual solution was more theatrical and abstract, but the performers were directed to behave with utter simplicity and realism. It proved the perfect solution to, on the one hand, a plot heavy with dated religious symbolism and, on the other, the compensatory physical limitations that tend to encumber performers gifted with the oversized voices Wagner insisted on for his characters.

There may be only a few local arts buffs with an appetite—and bank account—big enough to compass all three of the special events surveyed here. But their mere juxtaposition, and the merry jingle of the cash-registers in their respective box-offices, should once more raise in thoughtful, civic-minded folk a hope that our civic leaders on the social and political side might be persuaded at last to stop talking about Seattle's aspirations to be a "world-class city" and start taking steps to help make it one.

 
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