It was going to be an American “Ring,” a vision of Wagner’s epic four-part operatic cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung” seen through the lens of American culture. But the Wagner production that had its genesis at the Washington National Opera in 2003, and came to a thrilling conclusion Sunday afternoon at the San Francisco Opera, became much more than an overlay of American imagery on a 19th-century spectacle of gods, dwarfs, men and magic talismans. It is now one of the best “Ring” cycles in more than a quarter of a century.

And that bodes well for opera in Washington. The director of this production, Francesca Zambello, is the newly appointed artistic adviser of the Washington National Opera. If she has real power in that role, and if the WNO can muster the financial support that her vision deserves, the embattled company could finally do great work.

Elements of Zambello’s American “Ring” were already present in a production of “The Valkyrie” she staged at Constitution Hall, where the company was in residence during 2003 renovations of the Kennedy Center Opera House. Video played a major role in that first, trial run at the larger cycle, but that was in part because the temporary stage at Constitution Hall couldn’t accommodate much three-dimensional action.

The production was a success, and it built momentum for the company to undertake a full “Ring” cycle in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera. Over the past few years, the Washington Opera has added the cycle’s prologue, “The Rhinegold” (in 2006) and a new version of “The Valkyrie” (in 2007). But then the economic crisis hit, and in 2008 the company announced that “Siegfried” (staged in 2009), would be the last of the series.

That meant no production of the cycle’s conclusion, “Gotterdammerung,” in Washington (though a concert performance was given). But the San Francisco Opera, which co-produced the first three installments, forged ahead and is presenting the complete cycle. Washington opera lovers are missing something extraordinary.

Along the way, everything about the American “Ring” got better, even as its putative American theme became less and less important to the production’s impact. Wagner lived with his characters — the gods Wotan and Fricka, Brunhilde the Valkyrie warrior, the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde and their child, the hero Siegfried — for almost 30 years before he staged the first full “Ring” at Bayreuth in 1876. The years that Zambello has lived with them while putting together her cycle has deepened her understanding of their motivations and emotions to an almost uncanny degree. There may be better-sung “Ring” cycles, and some productions may be more visually impressive. But there is not a more nuanced and intelligent “Ring” cycle around.

Embracing the myth

Wagner, who wrote his own libretto, combined three basic narrative threads in the “Ring”: the brutal competition to have and hold a cursed ring, which makes its bearer all-powerful; the downfall of the gods, who purport to rule by law and contract but often resort to theft and subterfuge; and the romance of two couples, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Siegfried and Brunhilde, who chose love in the face of despair, destruction and fear of an unknown future. The title of the cycle — “The Ring of the Nibelung” — suggests where Wagner placed his emphasis, but many directors, perhaps self-conscious about the bad odor of J.R.R. Tolkien and his tales of a magic ring, seem embarrassed by that strand of the story.

Not Zambello, who has brought it to the fore, focusing unusual attention on the battle for power between Wotan and his nemesis, the dwarf Alberich, who forges the mysterious and cursed ring. This emphasis on the struggle for power gives the cycle philosophical heft, it raises the stakes for all the characters — the world itself is in peril — and while it is the most abstract of Wagner’s concerns, it intensifies all his other story lines. Long scenes that can be excruciatingly dull — Wagner’s recapitulations focus particularly on the fate of the ring — suddenly take on vitality and urgency in Zambello’s production.

And perhaps no part of the “Ring” cycle is so suddenly relevant, so ready-made for recasting in American terms, as Wagner’s depiction of an epic power struggle. Economic collapse, environmental degradation, decayed infrastructure, all have their roots in greed, self-interest and the blind quest for status and power. Zambello’s production represents it all: Act 2 of “Valkyrie” takes place under a crumbling highway overpass; Act 1 of “Siegfried” is set in a grubby trailer; and the nouveaux riches of “Gotterdammerung” live in the architecture of Joan Didion’s California with trimmings by Crate & Barrel.

The American way

The idea of an American “Ring” seemed like a gimmick back in 2003. But this production goes deep. It is not just about imagery, but about character, and without warping Wagner, Zambello has unleashed a cast of familiar grifters, skunks and cheats. Even Wotan, chief of the gods, is a bit sleazy. But that’s the American way. Royalty here is just a matter of one generation of money-laundering. The self-made are soon self-satisfied and merely selfish.

Zambello and her design team (Michael Yeargan, Catherine Zuber, Mark McCullough, Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker) deftly mix video, touches of Americana, old-fashioned stage illusion and suggestive costumes to create a world that isn’t explicitly American, or mythological, but a subtle combination of both. Although eclectic in its material, the production is also cohesive, progressing from a leafy-green world of clean water and innocence in “Rhinegold” to a soot-filled industrial wasteland in “Gotterdammerung.” Women play a much larger role in the drama than in other productions, and an achingly beautiful final gesture suggests that after Wagner’s almost 15 hours of masculine aggression, it might be women who inherit the Earth.

‘Siegfried,’ with comedy

Throughout the cycle, Zambello underscores the costs of ambition. And yet each opera has its own character and tone. Miraculously, “Siegfried,” the most difficult to finesse, emerges as a kind of comedy, an oversize scherzo in Wagner’s grand, symphonic four-movement scheme. That mastery of architecture, the use of humor that is wry but not corrosive, and a concept that is smart rather than clever, makes Zambello one of the best directors working in opera today.

The cast for these performances isn’t perfect, nor is the orchestra. The strongest voices were often in the lesser roles, the villains and schemers, rather than the gods and heroes. As Loge, the subaltern divinity and flimflam artist who helps leads the bluer-blooded residents of Valhalla to their destruction, tenor Stefan Margita was a brilliant discovery, an accomplished actor with an elastic and focused voice. The Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli could take a bit more care with pitch, but even so, his Hagen was a thrilling display of vocal power. As Mime, the wheedling dwarf with futile dreams of capturing the ring, tenor David Cangelosi dominated the first act of “Siegfried.”

The larger roles were more frustrating. Mark Delavan was not an indefatigable Wotan, but he had the right tone and the right mix of dignity and swagger. Brandon Jovanovich brought a heroic timbre to Siegmund, but one wanted more of it. Anja Kampe, who sang Sieglinde in the 2003 “The Valkyrie,” reprised the role, sounding a bit more under stress than she did eight years ago. Two tenors sang Siegfried. Jay Hunter Morris brought a slightly cloudy tone to the part in “Siegfried,” but mustered strength and clarity at critical moments. Ian Storey was suffering from vocal problems as the “Gotterdammerung” Siegfried, and for much of the second act he sang in an almost inaudible half-voice.

As Brunhilde, Nina Stemme’s lower range was often lost under the orchestra (conducted by Donald Runnicles). Except when singing loudly in her upper range, she approached notes with a rather limp attack, giving the impression that she was slightly behind the orchestra. But those big notes, and her energetically youthful and athletic stage presence, made her an endearing Brunhilde nonetheless.

Music mirrors drama

The orchestra was sometimes ragged. Small problems piled up: an errant sword motif, premature entrances, ragged brass chords, infelicities in the violins during particularly exposed or transparent passages such as the “Magic Fire Music” in “The Valkyrie.” But the orchestra was also capable of great power and warmth, and Runnicles mastered what may be the most difficult challenge of the score: the connective tissue. In between the grand orchestral show­pieces and juggernaut monologues, the “Ring” is woven from a handful of basic themes, broken down into repetitive musical gestures. In the hands of an impatient or indifferent conductor, these atomized bits of musical data can sound like generic literary filler.

Runnicles has divined their greater importance as the basic transistors and capacitors in Wagner’s emotional circuitry. Moment by moment, the conductor managed the energies of the score, pushing here, slackening there. Perhaps no one will credit him with a grand architectural plan; but in Wagner, the grand plan matters far less than the surface, and the surface of Runnicles’s “Ring” was electric.

In that, the music mirrored the drama, which yielded an even more profound result. For decades, in lugubrious prose, Wagner gassed on about his operatic ideal: a perfect symbiosis of music, drama and design in a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or complete work of art. If you’re ever cornered by a garrulous opera lover who wants to explain this to you, run. But the ideal is real, and the San Francisco “Ring” realized it. Zambello, with Runnicles’s help and the impressive commitment of her cast, proved the old monster of Bayreuth was right about his art: It works only as a complete fusion of musical and dramatic gestures.

The full “Ring” should come to Washington. But it’s too easy to demand that the company stage the “Ring.” The challenge is to the opera lovers of Washington, especially the filthy-rich ones, who alone can make it happen. Let’s hope they rise to the occasion.

The Ring of the Nibelung

by Richard Wagner, continues through July 3 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. For more information visit