Wagner’s proto-Nazi credentials have been more commented upon, for obvious reasons, than his ecological ones. But the Washington National Opera’s first ever production of The Ring is nothing less than an environmental allegory. It also styles itself as the first all-American Ring, in its directorship, design and setting, and as such, is a provocative comment on its (mis)-usage of power since the days of westward expanse – its destructiveness in the service of world-ambition. There is Wagnerian grandiosity here, surely, and also a sort of timeliness. Could there be anything more apposite than Zambello’s Ring in a country which, with a mere 6% of the world’s population, uses a whole 25% of its resources?

Gordon Hawkins as Alberich (center), David Cangelosi as Mime (far right) © Scott Suchman for WNO
Gordon Hawkins as Alberich (center), David Cangelosi as Mime (far right)
© Scott Suchman for WNO

At first blush, the notion of Wagner’s reincarnation as a prophet for Greenpeace, as it were, is a little suspect. One didn’t expect an apolitical Ring from Zambello. But an ecological statement, attended by the prefatory article ‘was Wagner an environmentalist?’ Really? Just a little too faddish?

I came away, however, from Rheingold, compelled by the production so far – more than by the singers (satisfactory without being outstanding) or orchestra (solid if sometimes lacklustre). The environment – natural and manmade – gives Zambello and set-designer Michael Yeargan a broad canvas on which to develop both vast ideas and particular effects. The white-clad Rhinemaidens epitomize virgin nature in all its carefree abundance: the New World indeed. The stark violation of the integrity of their world is brought home by their appearance at the end, after their eerie lament off-stage. Aged, haggard and in grey rags, they importune Wotan, who as a god has greater moral responsibility than the gold’s original thief. Dismissing their voiceless pleading, he ascends towards Valhalla, his (ironically) white trench coat billowing behind. Physical ascent and material aspiration yoked to natural and moral descent: this powerfully communicates major Wagnerian concerns.

Alan Held, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Cox, Melody Moore, Ryan McKinny © Scott Suchman for WNO
Alan Held, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Cox, Melody Moore, Ryan McKinny
© Scott Suchman for WNO
Computer-generated images between scenes represented the constant flux of evolutionary nature – as apt a visual representation of Wagner’s developmental motifs as any. These and the backdrops were inspired by the vast canvases of the sublime American West by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church. Lighting was uniformly excellent: the blues and golds faded to sickly grey after the violation of pristine nature; the pallid world of the gods without Freia gave way to the Technicolour approach to their wholly artificial paradise. The molten-gold depths of the Nibelheim were crucial to a brilliantly-choreographed scene. Anvil-sound ringing the theatre stereophonically, we were deep down in the mine ourselves, alongside the infant labour-slaves.

Alan Held as Wotan © Scott Suchman for WNO
Alan Held as Wotan
© Scott Suchman for WNO
So what kind of gods does Zambello plan to destroy in this Ring? Here they started as 1930s-style American plutocrats, although Freia is a shirtwaist-dress Gibson girl, and Wotan more like a bully-boy European fascist, with military boots, trench coat and inevitable spear. Negligently waiting on the building site of their new ‘tower’, the range of mountains becomes the mere backdrop to their vaulting material ambition. But Zambello is too deft a director to cast them merely as the despicable super-rich: these are very human portrayals that engage us, relatable in their vanities and moral choices: love or gold? Law or theft? Age or youth? All is finally shrugged off with champagne. For now.

As regards the singing, whilst there were no stellar performances, there were some decent ones. Gordon Hawkins was in good voice as Alberich and was a particularly captivating high-priest of the underworld in Scene Three, projecting dark energy in his ample baritone, with David Cangelosi as a mincing Mime. Alan Held’s Wotan was powerfully expressive. Lindsay Ammann’s appearance as Erda, Earth Mother, Native American style, brought us lovely, deep, stilling tones. In this environmental reading, her role is crucial, and Ammann weighted it with suitable gravitas. Elizabeth Bishop was an endearingly comic Fricka; she has said in interview that she thinks the character terribly misunderstood; most certainly, she brought her to life.

William Burden was Loge-the-lawyer, adept at finding loopholes for the monied. His tone and acting I liked. The denim-clad giants, lowered dramatically on a steel girder (reminiscent of the iconic photograph), Julian Close (Fasolt) and Soloman Howard (Fafner) rumbled their bass lines. Donner (Ryan McKinny) and Froh (Richard Cox) were indifferently tame – the former's summoning of the storm and the latter's conjuring of the rainbow were lacklustre. But as college fraternity boys, in crested blazers, whether chewing gum or wielding a hammer as a croquet mallet, they acted well: effective at evoking over-privileged effetes. 

Ryan McKinny, Julian Close, Soloman Howard, Alan Held, Elizabeth Bishop, Melody Moore © Scott Suchman for WNO
Ryan McKinny, Julian Close, Soloman Howard, Alan Held, Elizabeth Bishop, Melody Moore
© Scott Suchman for WNO

The prefatory evening closes upon the inebriated carelessness of the Lords of the New World after the first, fateful violation of nature. Champagne and laughter, as Noel Coward once said of the 1920s, but what comes after? Zambello’s compelling Rheingold unquestionably invites us to proceed.