Great moments in opera: Die Walküre

March 26, 2010

Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the second part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, following on from Das Rheingold.  Dramatically, it is a bit of a mixed bag: the three Acts feel disjoint, and the rationale behind the action is at times quite opaque, at least to me.  Musically, it is far lovelier than was Das Rheingold.  The first Act especially, in which we are introduced to the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, achieves a sense of hushed and intimate intensity that is quite beautiful.

Since the end of Das Rheingold, the god Wotan has been busy: he has fathered two mortal offspring, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who have then been separated as children and grown up separately.  At the opening of Act I, Siegmund stumbles unknowingly into the home of Sieglinde and her husband Hunding.  The twins, though not recognizing one another, nevertheless sense a deep connection and misinterpret it as romantic love.  This is most unfortunate, since it means that we are obliged to contemplate an incestuous love affair as part of the story — and not on the margins of the story, either, since the fruit of their union, Siegfried, will be the central hero in the subsequent parts of the Ring.

Anyway, it soon comes out that Siegmund is fresh from killing Hunding’s friends and relations, seeking to avenge Hunding’s own slaughter of Siegmund’s family many years before.  They vow to fight one another on the morrow.  Siegmund has just one problem: he has no sword.  Conveniently enough, the room in which he is being held has a great tree in the center — the World Ash Tree — with a sword embedded in its trunk.  He learns from Sieglinde that many years before a powerful man — their father, Wotan, in disguise — had put the sword there, declaring that only the one destined for it would be able to pull it out.  Siegmund tries his hand at it and, sure enough, he succeeds.

Here is the section in which Siegmund and Sieglinde declare their love for one another.  Dramatically this is pretty nasty stuff, but the music has a lyrical beauty that is rare in Wagner.  The section begin with Siegmund’s song Winterstürme wichen, in which he sings about spring, blossoms, fresh winds, birds, and other things that trip readily from the tongue of a lover.  Sieglinde answers him in kind with Du bist der Lenz.  They then exchange pleasantries about shining faces, noble halos, spring moonlight, and dreams of love.  At the end of this clip they creep up to the realization that they have the same father, and that each is therefore the other’s long-lost twin.  The singers here are Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer, in a 1976 Bayreuth production conducted by Pierre Boulez.

In Act II we meet for the first time Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie from whom this part of the Ring takes its name.  She is a goddess who rides a horse in the sky.   The plot in this Act is convoluted and not very clear to me.  By the end of it, Siegmund is dead (killed by Hunding, his sword shattered by Wotan) and Sieglinde has been taken by Brünnhilde to Valhalla.  Sieglinde is pregnant.   Meanwhile, Brünnhilde has brought the wrath of Wotan upon herself by disobeying his orders.

Act III opens with the famous Ride of the Valkyries; personally I find this section laboured and bombastic.   Once it ends, Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the fragments of Siegmund’s shattered sword and bids her take refuge in the woods, awaiting the birth of her child.  Then, in the final scene, Wotan punishes Brünnhilde for her disobedience.  He strips her of her divinity and puts her into a deep sleep, promising that she will remain there until awoken by a mortal man, to whom she will then belong.  She begs him to surround her with terrors as she sleeps, so that only a great hero will be able to find her, and he concedes.  She falls asleep and Wotan, summoning the god of fire, places a great ring of flame around her.  There she will remain until the end of Siegfried.

The closing moments of Die Walküre, when Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde and sets the fire around her, are among my favourites in the Ring.  The orchestral music, sometimes played separately as the Magic Fire Music, is quite extraordinary.   Here it is, in a 1990 production from the Metropolitan Opera.  Wotan is sung by James Morris and Brünnhilde by Hildegard Behrens.

Die Walküre is nearly four hours long, and I must admit that at times I found it tough going. Any hope I may have had of penetrating the philosophical or political meaning of Wagner’s drama is slipping away as I struggle to master even the literal sense.  The music is not nearly as rough and ugly as it was in Das Rheingold, but the slow action and sometimes perplexing logic driving it are trying my patience.  I am determined to see the Ring through to its conclusion, but I am beginning to have wistful dreams about a certain Wolfgangus Theophilus.

One Response to “Great moments in opera: Die Walküre

  1. […] Der Ring des Nibelungen: Die Walküre […]

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