The auditorium went black, and a quiet E-flat rose and grew from the orchestra pit, in the dark. On a screen, abstract blurred videos gradually morphed into images of water as more instruments fed the rising tide of sound. It was such a clear, right opening to Wagner’s massive “Ring” cycle that it almost didn’t matter, when the curtain went up, that the stage set, framed by generic mountain silhouettes and filled with clouds of white smoke, didn’t give any clear idea of where we were.
Francesca Zambello’s production of “The Rhinegold,” as the Washington National Opera insists on calling the prologue to Richard Wagner’s tetralogy of operas, was first seen in D.C. in 2006, and billed as the start of an “American Ring.” Both the production and the concept have mellowed considerably since then, honed during the cycle’s first complete presentation in San Francisco in 2011. The focus of this “Ring” is less concept than storytelling; indeed, the first scene of this “Rhinegold” had drifted so far from its original conception that it threatened to drift away from the story altogether. Fortunately it was anchored by an excellent trio Rhinemaidens — Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin and Renée Tatum — whose fine singing compensated for their aimless stage business, waving their arms through the clouds of smoke.
The storytelling came into focus in the second scene of this generally compelling performance. The gods, in 1920s garb (their “eternal youth” evident in Froh and Donner, Richard Cox and Ryan McKinny, played here as spoiled and privileged boy-men), survey their new edifice (which the audience cannot see) from a well-appointed mountain terrace. And Zambello pays attention to oft-overlooked details of characterization, like the poignant push-and-pull between affection and intimacy in the relationship of Wotan, the chief god (Alan Held), and his oft-betrayed wife, Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop).
And in terms of characterization, the casting was generally strong. There are stronger voices than Held’s, or more focused ones than Gordon Hawkins’s as Alberich, but both offered warm portrayals that grew in authority. A leather coat underlined the shiny slipperiness of William Burden’s swift-talking Loge. Soloman Howard and Julian Close were a redoubtable pair of giants (although they moved with such restriction in their lumpy costumes that Fasolt’s death seemed more like a pantomime than an actual murder). Lindsay Ammann sang vividly, though with a throbbing vibrato, as Erda, portrayed in 2006 as a Native American and now modified with a dash of Goth lite.
As for the orchestra: All credit to Philippe Auguin, WNO’s music director, for getting them to sound so good. His restraint in the opera’s opening seemed to me a preparation for the increasing ardor of its final scene, which crackled with energy and tension as the gods ascended their rainbow bridge to Valhalla. In this production, they’re climbing a gangway, which at once promises the start of a voyage and marks a convenient way to keep undesirable elements — the grieving Rhinemaidens — out.
“The Ring of the Nibelung” continues at WNO through May 22. “The Rhinegold” will be played twice more, on May 10 and May 17.