By now, we are deep within the underbelly of the post World War II American dream. The green woods have been felled for timber, and are carried on endlessly speeding rails. Power plants' smoke stacks clog the world of nature, blanching it of colour. Mime and Siegfried are beer-swilling trailer trash, surrounded by a scrapheap, a tangle of cables, and that ultimate of all status-killers, the outdoor clothesline. Machine-gun toting Alberich is making Molotov cocktails and dragging around a shopping cart. Fafner the dragon was reimagined as a terrifying-looking scrap metal compactor who bled oil, spewed steam and sprayed sparks, the most repulsive expression of mechanization possible. And, most pointedly of all, the grandiosity of the Valhalla motif becomes the very choicest of ironies in the persona of a down-and-out Wotan the Wanderer, duct-tape patching up the elbows of his shapeless coat and teeth rotting in his mouth.

David Cangelosi (Mime) © Scott Suchman
David Cangelosi (Mime)
© Scott Suchman

Decay is default; redemption hardly perceptible. But the skein is certainly there; Francesca Zambello has announced her “hugely American impulse” of inexorable optimism; this will not be a Ring of ultimate pessimism. We see signs of things to come in a tiny nuance of stage business, when the Woodbird (a fluty Jacqueline Echols) urgently waves Siegfried off as he is about to set alight the gasoline he has vengefully poured over the corpses of Mime and Fafner. He refrains, and the set soon reveals the intact virgin forest, salvaged from this one act of wanton destruction. Thus does his path open towards love, and the audience gently pointed in the upward direction where Zambello would lead them.

There are big ideas here but, happily, neither narrative nor characters are hijacked for their sake. On the contrary, Zambello’s chief strength is as a storyteller: the details of relational dynamics (parent/child, male/female, victor/victim, for example) are all acutely observed, and every opportunity for human tragedy, comedy, casual or dramatic irony drawn out with signal finesse. A case in point occurs in Act I, in the scene of endless petulance and bickering between pseudo-father and ASBO-worthy son. As Mime drones on about all he has done for Siegfried and complains of rank ingratitude, the latter mockingly mouths the same words to his wolf soft-toy. And at once, we realize that he has heard this spiel ad nauseam since childhood. It is, in fact, the same old tune. These come across, therefore, as characters with believable back-stories.

Daniel Brenna (Siegfried) © Scott Suchman
Daniel Brenna (Siegfried)
© Scott Suchman

Siegfried, the fresh-faced Daniel Brenna, was the epitome of the rebellious adolescent – a post World War II American invention after all, with a touch of James Dean about him. He has anger issues, but was still endearing, and not every production succeeds in making him so. Brenna’s voice wasn’t the biggest imaginable but he communicated energy and passion throughout.

David Cangelosi (Mime) © Scott Suchman
David Cangelosi (Mime)
© Scott Suchman
Mime – David Cangelosi – was superb, a character singer-actor, silly dancing, high fives and all. Lindsay Ammann’s deep contralto was a fitting vessel for the embodiment of female wisdom, albeit a wisdom thrown into much disarray by the wholesale violation of the natural world. Her belief now is in her daughter Brünnhilde, sole bearer of the lineage of wisdom. Alan Held’s Wotan sustained his fall in status with resonant tones; his eventual tiring was apt. Spear-shattered, he didn’t even rise to leave the stage. His will for extinction was evocatively expressed, as also his prophecy that his daughter would redeem the world. Daughter in question woke up as Catherine Foster, partly recovered from her injury although clearly limited in mobility, something that detracted from the energy of her persona. What is not to appreciate in that effulgent voice? Yet her acting left something to be desired: lots of ‘sawing in the air’ and posturing for the audience. This might have mattered less in another production, but given Zambello’s deeply feminist take, it seemed a particular pity that she played it ‘blonde’ in the most clichéd of ways. With Christine Goerke in mind, Wotan’s prophecy had seemed especially morally significant; now one had one’s doubts.

Philippe Auguin has the orchestra well in hand, bringing them from the deep place of brooding at the opening to the rapt ebullience of its final moments, through the emphatic rhythms of the Forging Song and the ethereal delicacy of the Forest Murmurs. He is showing himself to be a master of textures, and there is so much at that level alone to nuance. He is adept at picking out an instrument or a desk there, so that even a single line appears with unwonted clarity.

In short, Zambello’s third opera in the tetralogy was another genuine success, a musical and dramatic achievement of the most engaging and dynamic kind.