Wagner - Die Walküre at La Monnaie

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday January 28 2024

Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Production, sets, costumes and lighting: Romeo Castellucci, with Paola Villani (sets), Clara Strasser (costumes), Raphael Noel (lighting). Choreography: Cindy Van Acker. Siegmund: Peter Wedd. Hunding: Ante Jerkunica. Wotan: Gábor Bretz. Sieglinde: Nadja Stefanoff. Brünnhilde: Ingela Brimberg. Fricka: Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Gerhilde: Karen Vermeiren. Ortlinde: Tineke Van Ingelgem. Waltraute: Polly Leech. Schwertleite: Lotte Verstaen. Helmwige: Katie Lowe. Siegrune: Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur. Grimgerde: Iris Van Wijnen. Rossweisse: Christel Loetzsch. La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra.

Photos: Monika Rittershaus / La Monnaie

At the moment, I'm about halfway through Roberto Calasso's The Ruin of Kasch* (in a French translation, as usual when I can't easily read the original). Like Romeo Castellucci towards his audiences, Calasso is uncompromising in his assumption that readers will be adequately versed in world (not just western) history, philosophy, religion, myths and legends, literature and art to follow his writing. I quite enjoy the challenge this presents, and seeing how much I think I can 'get'. It's a good thing, in the case of this particular book, I've spent time recently learning about the life of Napoleon and the period around and after the Congress of Vienna. Before I even embarked on Calasso, I read a biography of Talleyrand to get ready. Now, I inch my way through, often re-reading whole paragraphs as I go. The effort is worth it. As with Castellucci, and even if you only really grasp half of them - if that - Calasso's multiple references, cross-references, analogies, allegories and allusions end up giving you some startlingly fresh ideas and new ways of thinking about where our modern world (for good or ill) came from, and perhaps may be heading. And I think some of their preoccupations are shared.
It took me some time to digest Castellucci's production of the relatively short Das Rheingold. I was afraid the longer Die Walküre would throw up too many enigmas to deal with. In the event, it came across as relatively simple, on a sparsely-furnished stage, sometimes too dark for my taste - but darkness is useful when there's magic to perform - with a palette of obviously symbolic black and white and touches of red. (Sounds like Pizzi, but Castellucci is in another league.) But the apparent simplicity was of the deceptive kind. I'm coming to see that, with Castellucci, every detail, however small, is a clin d'oeil of some kind - a nod to something else, in history, philosophy, religion, myths and legends, literature or art, or a nod back to his own previous productions, including, but not limited to, the Rheingold we saw before Christmas...
After a week of head-scratching and reading around it, I'll now try to run as succinctly as I can through the main 'blocks' of the production, in an attempt to give an overview of how it looked. It is not a rewrite or 'deconstruction' of Wagner's work. It follows the text, focusing on the ideas rather than the action, with, I think, at its intellectual core, Wotan's central encounters with Fricka and Brünnhilde. The multiple references and allusions illuminate the ideas. For a full, detailed account of the symbols and references at play, right down to the literary significance of Wotan's intriguing nosebleed in the second act, as for Das Rheingold, I strongly recommend clicking across to Wanderer's extraordinarily useful blog, where all is made clear (in French, but you can always paste it, bit by bit, into DeepL if you need a translation). Once you've read that, you'll want to see the show, just as I, having read it, now feel I need to see it again.

Romeo Castellucci's stagecraft (or his team's) is astonishing: how do you conjure up a fake nosebleed to order? And he likes, sometimes, to make a theatrical splash - something to strike or shock us. Die Walküre opens on a polythene curtain - this production often has a 'fourth wall' literally in place, here in translucent plastic, at other times gauze, inviting us to think, if we so wish, about reality and illusion in the theatre - so, a polythene curtain, with Siegmund plastered spectacularly against it by a violent jet of water (a literal splash), harassed by shadowy figures dashing about him, describing a circle (or ring) in mud. Already, water and earth. The earth will, in the second act, literally swallow Siegfried up. Fire will, of course, come later, a ring of it, at the very end, neatly bookending the production.

Sieglinde welcomes Siegmund - both of them in timeless, ordinary clothes - in a nearly empty white space. There's clever stage business, pictured at the top of this article, involving a horse's eye - a 'gaze that strips us naked' according to Castellucci in interview - on a giant disc, recalling the discs in Das Rheingold - but if I list everything this will go on forever. Hunding's loping black hound, sniffing around, signals his approach, and the dark, wooden, bourgeois furniture (in significant contrast, I think, to Valhalla's noble white marble reliefs), piled up, as if seized by Hunding and stored in his house, glides around the stage and closes in on Siegmund. The furniture includes a confessional, and Hunding, in a striking, sinister costume of sleek, black crow's feathers, after eating and regurgitating his food like a monstrous bird of prey, curls up in it to sleep.
There's no tree in this production. With Hunding out of the way, Sieglinde draws the sword out of her side and hands it to Siegmund, who stows it in a modern fridge that appears silently and incongruously amid the piles of cabinets and bentwood chairs, keeping it fresh for the morrow. The youngsters, entwined on the ground, are nearly buried under the spring flowers surging out of an invisible cornucopia, as if by magic: even from my seat fairly high up, on the third balcony, I couldn't see a hole in the stage. They anoint each other with milk and blood. The first-degree symbolism of this is fairly easy to grasp: loss of virginity (we speculate that Sieglinde's marriage to Hunding wasn't consummated) and motherhood; but Wanderer recalls 'the biblical prohibition (...), which forbids the consumption and even possession of mixed meat and milk. The brother "possessing" the sister in this sacrilegious bath is one of the strongest images of this Walküre.'

I like the sympathetic way Wotan is presented, in the second act, as a thinker, a frustrated philosopher held back by his 'contracts', by old laws, hesitant - nudged on stage by Fricka's ram and worriting through Nietzschean and Dostoievskian issues with his sleeves rolled up, as he bathes a Buddha's head (presumably from the headless statue that appeared in Das Rheingold) in milk. Fricka sails in majestically encased in a voluminous, pleated costume, gleaming white, brandishing a bloodstained sheet. The costume, recalling at once brides and nuns, is so voluminous it eventually opens up, revealing another person behind, like a Russian doll. Her followers wear similar outfits, less monumental. As she gets down to the business of nagging her philosopher husband, she gradually sheds the formal gear, aggressively thrusting forth an ample cleavage as she reveals her long, blond hair. While she harangues Wotan, she crushes and claws open mechanical facsimiles of the trained live doves that flutter around her, to peer into their entrails.

During Wotan's 'confession' to Brünnhilde - here in a plain, dark dress, at times accompanied by the four disembodied legs of a white horse, moved by invisible stagehands - Castellucci makes open reference to Dostoievski as extras wave flags with the letters I, D, I, O and T around him. As the duel approaches, the forest floor comes to life - like the floor of Valhalla in Das Rheingold - with writhing dancers this time not naked but sewn up invisible in mossy green costumes. This heaving ground engulfs Siegmund, and as the act ends, we see Hunding's now-familiar black dog strung up, dead, by the neck.
(As you see, I'm trying to speed up, for myself as well as for you, the reader.)
Perhaps the most chattered-about aspect of this production is the presence on stage, in the first part of act three, of all the Walkyries' magnificent black horses. Though obviously not galloping around, their ambling, as they graze behind the singers, is still fairly noisy, so you wonder why they are real, not models or videos. Also, on La Monnaie's stage, they take up a lot of space, pushing the singers to the front (not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose). But in the programme book, Castellucci says 'When you have an animal before you, the reality of its body pierces the veil of fiction.' So this reality is actively 'voulu', as the French say, and takes us back to the question of the 'fourth wall' I mentioned above. And while their hooves make noise, the director would even have liked them to whinny and neigh, echoing the famous 'Hojotohos' to underline his point about the near-animality of the Walkyries themselves. The latter, by the way, are helmeted in the 'traditional' Wagnerian way, though here with something recalling Prussian Pickelhaube, as they drag hapless naked extras around (I always worry there might be splinters in the boards) and pile them together in positions recalling the pietàs and last judgements of medieval painting.

Which brings us to the wonderfully moving final scenes. These are played out on a nearly empty stage, recital-like, with ominous, shifting shadows in the background (a nod to Siegmund's dimly-seen pursuers at the start), until the very end. As Brünnhilde lies down, there's no ring of fire - not yet. A giant white light box at the rear sinks slowly down on her; its light gives way to darkness. Then and only then, as the last bar dies out, a metal ring suspended above the stage bursts into flame.
This has, I admit, been a kind of breathless dash through the production, but if I'd gone on I'd have ended up with Siegfried already breathing down my neck. I urge anyone still interested, again, to click over to Wanderer's extraordinarily useful blog, and of course to watch the video when it becomes available, as I suppose it will.

Moses und Aron at the Bastille
Even at a Sunday matinee, this Walküre won a standing ovation from the usually undemonstrative Brussels audience. Yet reviews have been, let's say, reticent about some of the singing. Perhaps they are coloured by the still common expectation that Wagner must be sung by the vocal equivalent of a prize bull pumped up on steroids (of the kind, come to think of it, Castellucci had on stage in Moses und Aron) - an expectation that also extends, weirdly, to the likes of Cherubini's Médée, Guillaume Tell, Norma, Berlioz's Enée and Weber's Max. Insofar as I have never been an absolute Wagner fan (and we know how absolute they can be), I have less 'skin in the game', so to speak and am less troubled by the parti pris of 'desacralising' and humanising the singing in this cycle.

It's nevertheless true that Siegmund and Sieglinde, cast apparently to be somehow vocally 'similar', were less striking, less charismatic than the rest of the principals. Peter Wedd put in a very fine performance, to my ear, but of restrained, Lieder-like singing, short on heroic éclat - perhaps deliberately so: is Siegfried really a hero, or only a putative one, and actually, in the end, more of a puppet - or stud?

My neighbours were all very happy with Nadja Stefanoff, but I know I have a prejudice against voices with a rapid vibrato, and to me she sounded a bit 'studenty' and stretched at the top.

Ante Jerkunica's Hunding was in particularly strong voice this Sunday: coal-black, or perhaps I should say raven-black, matching his slinky black feathers: deeply, darkly menacing.

The Walkyries were, together and individually, unusually good, making up for November's disappointing Rhinemaidens.

But it was obvious from the clap-o-meter who the afternoon's champions were. Though the press have hummed and harred and pouted and pulled faces, Marie-Nicole Lemieux was a stunning Fricka, vehement, buxom and juicy, knocking everyone's socks off.

Like Ante Jerkunica, Gábor Bretz was in very fine voice on Sunday, a relatively youthful, relatively light (as opposed to dark) Wotan, engagingly ruminative, sincere and profoundly human, excellently coupled with Ingela Brimberg's 'normal' (as opposed to monstrous), flexible, musical Brünnhilde. The famous 'farewell' was genuinely moving.

The loudest applause of all, however, was reserved - as usual, you might now say - for Alain Altinoglu and his orchestra. His conducting was constantly attentive to the needs of the singers, with wonderful chamber-like playing when called for, and striking shades of Weber and Mendelssohn. At La Monnaie, subscribers have the same seats at every performance, every year, so they get to know each other. A neighbour who's been there since the seventies was over the moon: 'We're back to the levels reached by Pappano.' But, I replied, I'd say they're better still today.

*No Wikipedia entry, but Goodreads says: 'In this brilliant work, Roberto Calasso cracks the code of what Baudelaire named the Modern--the increasingly murderous period from the French Revolution to the end of World War II. From Talleyrand's France and the legendary African city of Kasch, to Lenin's Russia and the killing fields of Cambodia, Calasso leads us along an enticing maze of mythology, literature, art, and science to the pulsing heart of civilization, where he deciphers the deepest secrets of history.'


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