Washington National Opera has turned a corner. No, I’m not talking about its much ballyhooed 50th-anniversary season—though surviving a half-century of turning out production after production for operatically conservative old Washington is feat enough to fete. It’s more a matter of WNO finally having come into its own as a company. Vocal casting has always been its strong suit, but, especially over the past several seasons, WNO has gotten more consistent in its ability to treat opera as cogent and compelling drama.

As if to trumpet that fact, the company has announced a 2006–2007 season that’s more ambitious than any it’s undertaken since the ’70s. And if stagings of works by such composers as Bartók, Janáÿcek, and Nicholas Maw aren’t enough to keep subscribers on their toes, the company is also scaling that Everest for opera producers: a complete staging of Wagner’s four-evening Der Ring des Nibelungen, which kicked off last week with Das Rheingold.

Endlessly debated, notoriously politicized, loved and loathed, and mercilessly lampooned, the Ring still stands as a high-water mark of operatic art. It’s The Lord of the Rings as Marx and Nietzsche might have co-authored it, with a score boasting a dizzying web of leitmotifs, sequences of throat-grabbingly visceral music, and stretches of breathtaking serenity during which time seems to stop. It lacks the lush tunefulness of the later operas in the cycle, perhaps, unfolding as a sort of heightened, melodic recitative over an undulating orchestra. But what makes Rheingold work is its dramatic concision. The Ring plays like a family drama—there are times during the exchanges among the gods, giants, and dwarves when you could just as well be listening to the bickering members of an Ibsen or O’Neill household—and of the Ring’s four operas, Rheingold feels the most like a traditional play.

Director Francesca Zambello understands this. She’s taken pains to make sure the characters emerge with clear motivations and engage with each other. She’s rid Rheingold of the presentational posing and the belting to the rafters that has lamed so many other productions of the Ring. She’s forced our eyes to rove the stage to watch for how this or that character might react to a fresh piece of news or to examine their faces for whatever dark thoughts might flit across them.

Of course, not all of the singers here possess the acting chops to do full justice to Zambello’s direction. But many do, and, happily, they occupy key roles. Rheingold pivots on the actions of dwarf Alberich and chief god Wotan. Alberich, whose ugliness and grasping need have left him disenfranchised and loveless, steals the Rhinemaidens’ gold and forges from it a ring that gives him power over the world. Wotan, meanwhile, has signed a bad contract with a pair of giants, promising them the goddess Freia in return for building the gods’ new home, Valhalla. Under family pressure, Wotan takes the advice of the conniving demigod Loge to steal what was already stolen by Alberich and pay the giants with the gold, setting in motion the Ring’s downward ethical spiral.

Alberich and Wotan have often been regarded as two facets of the same personality. Zambello does that equation one better here by giving Alberich the pride, power, and tragic grandeur and Wotan the fretting, neediness, and shame. She couldn’t have found two better singing actors for the roles. Gordon Hawkins turns in a commanding, handsomely sung performance as Alberich, tapping into the common-man nobility and seriousness of purpose that informed his WNO Porgy last fall. But he also finds a bitter edge and quiet desperation in the character, making for an even more memorable portrayal. Mercifully, no attempt is made to stoop his tall, broadly built frame to dwarflike dimensions.

Robert Hale, veteran Wotan of many a Ring cycle, is no less fascinating to watch, with his slightly squeamish, patrician air, his wry arch of the eyebrows when dealing with his wife, Fricka, and his almost petulant chasing after Loge to insist on getting out of his contract. Yet so seasoned and balanced is Hale’s sense of the character that for all the little weaknesses betrayed, we never doubt for a moment that he’s commander in chief. There are moments when Hale has to finesse the musical line due to a slight waning in vocal flexibility and amplitude. But his is still a burnished bass baritone that’s a pleasure to listen to in the part.

In fact, the whole cast is a pleasure to listen to—hardly a given in Wagner performances these days—and it acts well as an ensemble. Of special note are the elegantly sung Fricka of Elizabeth Bishop, the vividly characterized (but never caricatured) Loge of Robin Leggate, and an outstanding trio of Rhinemaidens, as seductive to the eye as to the ear. (One of the three, Jennifer Hines—pint-sized and stunning with a rich, powerhouse contralto—is the find of the season.) Conductor Heinz Fricke is in generally good form, for a change taking his time with a Wagner score. He still pulls his punches at the biggest climaxes, but the guy’s got the natural ebb and flow of Wagnerian phrasing in his bones.

Still, the mutterings in D.C. opera circles of late have had less to do with musical niceties in the WNO Rheingold and more to do with Zambello’s concept of an “American” Ring. Given that there have been outer-space Rings, white-trash Rings, Green Rings, Third Reich Rings, and Mad Max Rings, why not an American Ring? It isn’t even the first time it’s been tried. In 2004, director Christopher Alden set his Die Walküre in an unmistakably Sam Shepherd–ish suburb, complete with crazy dad, abusive blue-collar husband, and Valkyries in Catholic-school uniforms. After all, American history has supplied us with enough duplicitous leaders and wealthy families gone to seed to outfit a dozen Rings.

Zambello starts in as good a place as any, the 1920s, portraying Alberich as a failed gold prospector, the dwarves as miners, the gods as a tycoon’s estate-dwelling family, the giants as construction workers, and the earth goddess Erda as a Native American. It all works well enough, though given the setting, it seems a missed opportunity not to do it in one of the fine English translations out there. (Choosing surtitles that emphasize both the libretto’s melodramatic tone and Wagner’s highly alliterative style does the production no favors, by the way: It begins to look as if the author of Beowulf had written an episode of Dynasty.)

Not all of the staging ideas work. The diaphanous bolt of silk that stands in for the gold, for instance, seems a flimsy choice in more ways than one. Having Elena Zaremba’s Erda stroll out of the wings on cue in an outfit that looks lifted from Annie Get Your Gun is just plain hilarious. And if Alberich isn’t being played as a dwarf, why do Fasolt and Fafner need absurdly gargantuan feet to turn them into giants? But there are some sublime moments, as well, such as when the defeated and shackled Alberich orders his enslaved Nibelung brethren—played by a multiculti passel of kids—to drag the gold up to Valhalla. As he lifts the ring to affirm his fearsome power over them one last time, three of the children run up and cling to him, as if begging Daddy to stay home to avoid getting involved with those rich white folk who don’t care for him any more than they can use him. The action, combined with the look of shame and impotent rage on Hawkins’ face, is shattering and indelible. If the director’s inspiration continues to fire at that level, Washington can expect to see some fine music-drama as the Ring unfolds over the next few seasons.

Perhaps, though, before the complete cycle is unveiled in 2010, there can be some fresh thought given to the sets. Veteran designer Michael Yeargan has created an abstract wing-and-drop arrangement to highlight the realistic set pieces. Not a bad notion, but something doesn’t work. With their pale-gray finish, the wings feel both too present and too characterless—especially when backed by such an anonymous stretch of cyclorama: The rest of the scenery has a literalness that renders it prosaic rather than iconic. And the less said about the video projections of fluffy clouds and rushing water, the better.

An American Ring? Sure. A Ring in which Wotan is essentially a CEO? Fine. It’s design that winds up minimizing the concept. And that’s the last thing you want: a stage picture that looks small, just when the company is at a stage to see the big picture.CP