A Model for Modern ‘Ring’ Operas Is Unfolding in Brussels

Before Act II of Romeo Castellucci’s new staging of 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 Sigmund 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.”

A bird, one of many used in “Die Walküre,” flying over Bretz, left, and Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Fricka.Credit…Monika Rittershaus

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 Mozart’s Requiem and 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.

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