A model for modern 'Ring' operas is unfolding in Brussels

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A model for modern 'Ring' operas is unfolding in Brussels
Ingela Brimberg, left, as Brünnhilde and Gabor Bretz as Wotan in the minimalist final scene of “Die Walküre” at La Monnaie. Romeo Castellucci’s production of Wagner’s “Ring” at La Monnaie embodies ideas that the Metropolitan Opera should take note of for its own staging. (Monika Rittershaus via The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

BRUSSELS.- Before Act II of Romeo Castellucci’s new staging of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at La Monnaie in Brussels, a note projected onto the curtain reads: “This production respects animals and takes care of their well-being as a priority.”

At a recent performance, the message seemed like a follow-up to the first act, a way to explain the presence of a wolflike dog that stalked Siegmund and Sieglinde like an angel of death. But then the animals kept coming: at least 15 birds, then a horse for each of the nine Valkyries at the start of Act III.

The use of animals is impressive on its own. Their entrances, though, are coups de théâtre on top of the already impressive stage magic in this high-risk, high-payoff “Walküre” — the latest installment in Castellucci’s “Ring” cycle at La Monnaie. (“Das Rheingold,” which I watched on video, opened last fall; “Siegfried” premieres in September, followed by “Götterdämmerung” in January.)

As the Metropolitan Opera in New York shops around for its own “Ring” production later this decade (basically next week in the industry’s long planning cycles), its leaders might take notes from La Monnaie. Castellucci’s staging is a reminder that spectacle can have substance, that a “Ring” can be both abstract and theatrical, and, above all, that an audience can handle intelligence — beliefs that the Met lost sight of with its most recent “Ring.”

Castellucci is an auteurist director who makes the extraordinary seem natural, who conjures surprises that baffle and amaze, sometimes self-indulgently but often brilliantly. Driven more by imagery than plot, he has been best suited to staging oratorios or concert works like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem and Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. When it was announced that he would direct his first “Ring” in Brussels, there were scattered groans among opera fans who wondered whether his non-narrative style could sustain 15 hours of music.

His “Ring” does go against the grain. He isn’t staging the four operas with a single concept, as Valentin Schwarz did with his acerbically human drama at the Bayreuth Festival; each installment will stand on its own. And Castellucci isn’t aiming for blunt relevance. It has long become fashionable to dress up the “Ring” as an eco-fable, or in contemporary costumes. Patrice Chéreau’s centennial production at Bayreuth in 1976, perhaps the most famous staging, is a Marxist allegory of modernity. Castellucci, though, returns to the abstract approach of Wagner’s grandson, Wieland Wagner, that dominated Bayreuth after World War II.

He trusts the libretto to tell the story, and he trusts it to be timely on its own. After all, the “Ring” has always been relevant; that is the nature of mythic storytelling. And he isn’t misguided in having the operas stand alone. They are distinct — “Siegfried,” for example, an interjection of opera buffa, and “Das Rheingold” a seamless, proto-cinematic vision for the art form’s future. In the first two installments, Castellucci has presented an extended, visual essay on the essence of each work, his staging behaving like Wagner’s score in constantly commenting on and illuminating the action. The results have novelistic sweep and ambiguity, and are both persuasive and breathtakingly theatrical.

The world of “Das Rheingold,” in Castellucci’s production, is one of tribalism and violent hierarchy. Valhalla, the recently completed home of the gods, is a fortress built on loot. Wotan and Fricka, its rulers, enter by navigating — maybe even trampling — the bodies, made to look nude, of countless people laid out across the stage. Surrounding them are statues and reliefs based on the Elgin marbles, the Greek friezes that have long been housed at the British Museum.

Wotan and Loge, the trickster fire god, brutally torture a naked and tarred Alberich. As Alberich curses Wotan for taking his ring made from the Rhine gold he stole, setting in motion the drama of the “Ring,” he presses his body against Wotan, leaving a stain on Wotan’s pristine gown. All this behavior of the gods amounts to something like a death cult in the closing moments, as they enter Valhalla by ritualistically falling into a pit.

None of that imagery is present in “Walküre,” a stripped-down production that largely unfolds in black and white. If Castellucci’s “Rheingold” was about power, this staging is about the soul and mortality.

The characters of “Walküre,” Castellucci seems to argue, are, regardless of their godly status, people and fundamentally animals. (Hence the parade of zoological avatars.) And his reading of the libretto recalls kenosis, the Christian concept of Jesus’ renunciation of the divine to take a human form: Siegmund turns down an opportunity to follow Brünnhilde to Valhalla, and she later relinquishes her pride of place alongside Wotan to become a mortal.

This all sounds somber, but Castellucci’s productions are not without humor. His “Rheingold” ends with Loge licking a dinner plate, symbolizing his spoils as a player both in and out of the drama; Wotan’s pivotal monologue in Act II of “Walküre” includes floating letters that appear to be spelling something in Latin, a common gesture in Castellucci stagings, only to settle on the word “idiot.”

Crucial for this staging are its performances. In the pit, the orchestra plays briskly and clearly under Alain Altinoglu, who, leading his first “Ring,” already shows a mastery of its difficult pacing. And the cast is committed to unusual physicality. The Valkyries drag men’s bodies across the stage; Alberich sings naked and suspended in air.

But the singers, while universally game, are musically uneven. As Siegmund, Peter Wedd let out a pale cry of “Wälse!” Similarly, Nadja Stefanoff’s “O hehrstes Wunder!” was hardly audible. But both “Rheingold” and “Walküre” benefited from Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s rich Fricka, Ante Jerkunica’s frighteningly resonant Fasolt and Hundig, and, above all, Gábor Bretz’s warmly sympathetic Wotan.

Bretz was at his finest in the closing scene of “Walküre,” despairingly punishing Ingela Brimberg’s Brünnhilde and saying goodbye to his favorite child. Here, Castellucci and Altinoglu — who led the orchestra in tides of reserve and emotion — also rose to the moment, in which Wagner’s mythic tale is at its most achingly human.

Stripping away symbols and intellectual exercises, Castellucci empties the scene of everything except Wotan and Brünnhilde.

Who knows what next season’s final “Ring” productions will bring, but the wise restraint that closes this “Walküre” feels like a sign of their promise.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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