Richard Wagner’s mighty four opera saga of Der Ring des Nibelungen is performed at the Metropolitan Opera this season. Below is my short preview of the Ring…well, ‘short’ to the best of my ability to be short…with a focus on Die Walküre, the only opera of the Ring to be telecast in HD this season. It’s the matinee performance of Saturday, March 30; coincidentally, this Walküre is part of Ring Cycle I: a subscription series of four matinees spaced across the weeks in March and April. Two other subscription Ring Cycles are scheduled toward the end of the season, late April and early May, as well as a few single performances of Die Walküre and Das Rheingold. As these singles are not part of a subscription to a complete cycle, remaining seats of these and probably performances in the complete cycles are available at the box office. Dates of all performances are given below.
For first time Ringers, Die Walküre is the second opera of the Ring, the first being Das Rheingold (The Gold of the Rhine), an epic Prologue in one act. Die Walküre (The Valkyrie, in three Acts) is next, of course, after which is the heroic Siegfried (in three Acts) and finally Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods, in a prologue and three Acts), this last one wrapping the whole thing around, ending with hope for anyone who’s left after the catastrophic finale.
Fan, beware: one doesn’t simply walk into Die Walküre. Below are some thoughts to aid your approach and immersion.
Wagner chose to make the tale told in each opera take place over the course of more or less a single day.* In other words, there are no lulls in the flow of the dramatic narrative, like “several years have passed between Acts I and II.” In this way, the dramatic momentum on stage each evening is enhanced: the pressure of real time affects the pace of the characters’ decisions and actions as much as it affects your decisions about catching the train home. In Die Walküre, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s flight, which ends Act I, is ongoing in the music when Act II begins. Listen to this on recordings without a pause between the tracks. Then, save for the time of travel via Grane, Brünnhilde’s flying Valkyrie steed, the time for Acts II and III approximates the real time on stage. If you experience each moment in the Ring as such, it heightens the tension of the drama.
This said, however, at least a generation separates the end of Das Rheingold from the beginning of Die Walküre. A lot of stuff happening, we’ll soon learn. There is also a generation between Die Walküre and Siegfried, the third opera. Through the magic of the Tarnhelm, Fafner, formerly a Giant in Das Rheingold, is now a large dragon who guards the Nibelung’s treasure. Sieglinde, Siegmund’s bride (the heroic couple in Die Walküre), had died giving birth to Siegfried (thankfully not shown on stage) and the lad, his origins a mystery to him, has grown up under the ‘care’ of the treacherous Mime, whom we’ve met already in Rheingold. We witness empirical evidence of young Siegfried’s innocence, strength and heroism: in Act I, with his intuitive smithy skills, he repairs his father’s sword Notung; in Act II he slays Fafner with Notung, recovers the all-important Ring and the quite useful Tarnhelm, and then, forewarned by a talking Woodbird, Siegfried kills Mime, who would have poisoned him had the bird not tipped him off in a timely manner. Finally, in Act III, Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear of power, ascends to the mountaintop, still surrounded by the magic fire, and awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde with a kiss.
This is a truly transcendent moment in the Ring Cycle, a peak experience if ever there was one, and all the more so because at the end of Die Walküre we, certainly I, leave the theatre truly broken hearted at Wotan’s tough love treatment of his most beloved daughter! Listen to the music! You must love this scene!
It is unclear how much time elapses between this ecstatic ending of Siegfried, Act III, and when the happy couple emerges from their cozy cave on the mountain top in the second scene of the Prologue of Götterdämmerung. This is a big moment too, especially if you’ve recently, like only two nights before, experienced the last Act of Siegfried. It is also unclear if Siegfried takes in any trendy riverside stops along the way of his Rheinfahrt before he docks at the Hall of the Gibichungs.
No matter really: the three acts of Götterdämmerung are the final day of the Ring. In the Prologue, Brünnhilde sends Siegfried off to perform new heroic deeds, because she knows this is his manly fach. Before leaving, Siegfried gives the Ring to Brünnhilde as a token of his love. In the course of the long evening, which is about Siegfried’s downfall and death** and the ultimate redemption of the world, the Ring will go back to Siegfried, then, in the final scene, back to Brünnhilde and at last back to the Rheinmädchen, who will return the Gold to the depths of the Rhein where it all began in that first scene of Das Rheingold. Full circle, which is why it’s called a ‘cycle.’ The world is right again and maybe this will reverse global warming too.
In a nutshell, the Ring is about the conflict between those representing greed, wealth, power, envy, loveless lust, and exploitation of the less fortunate versus ultimately those who live by compassion and love, with a joyful affirmation of life and community. Simply put, in the Ring, Alberich, even his brother Mime, and Alberich’s son, the gloomy Hagen embody the former; Sigmund, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, and Siegfried, who perish, set the stage for the survival of the latter, though, truth be told, the innocent frat-boy-like Siegfried gets drugged and seduced by the dark side in Act I of Götterdämmerung, thereafter betraying his true love Brünnhilde and, in Act II, probably committing adultery with Gutrune, Gunther’s sister. They are the rulers of the Gibichung kingdom. Hagen is Gunther’s half-brother; his father is Alberich. Brünnhilde, in her anger, flirts with evil in final scene of Act II as she conspires with Hagen and Gunther for Siegfried’s assassination on the hunt the next morning (staged in Act III, Siegfried’s Funeral March ensuing). It’s big emotionally, very very big.
It’s big because Wagner had a real bug up somewhere about “effect without cause” in opera as drama. It’s why he expanded the Ring backwards in time from his original heroic drama Siegfried’s Death, so that we, in the audience, can experience the full emotional weight of the events leading up to the obviously big climactic moments played out during the evening. It also allowed him space to introduce and then vary, as dictated by the drama, the numerous musical references to characters, objects, and ideas. By working this all out, he also became aware of the grander cosmic issues latent in his epic cycle.
The two characters in the Ring who undergo the most significant developments are Wotan and Brünnhilde, the latter, if you ask me, is the centerpiece of the Ring and one of the great women in all of opera. Seriously!
Wotan in Das Rheingold leans, as I guess many absolute monarchs are wont to do, toward power, control, wealth, theft, of course he loves women, but, we suspect, as ornaments to be bejeweled, ignored, or…in this particular case, even exchanged as payment for manual labor. Ask Freia how she feels about this, like, really?
No, really: Wotan is not above exploiting the simple Giants (Fasolt and Fafner) by a promise to deliver the pretty goddess Freia as payment to them for building Valhalla, the new castle for the Gods. To break this deal, Wotan steals the Ring, the Tarnhelm, and gold from Alberich, but then ultimately turns it all over to the Giants. But...Alberich, full of hate, has cursed the Ring, auguring death to those who possess it. The curse is promptly demonstrated on stage by Fafner’s slaying his brother Fasolt right before our very eyes. That’s Das Rheingold, short and sweet.
So in Act II of Die Walküre, Wotan’s pressing dilemma is how to get the Ring back before Alberich himself gets it and destroys the Gods. The Gods’ own laws being such, Wotan can’t simply take it back from Fafner. His scheme is to spawn a race of human heroes who, without knowingly breaking the rules and laws of the Gods, will win back the Ring for him. All good so far: Wotan’s son by a mortal woman, a hero of course, is Siegmund, destined to accomplish what the Gods themselves cannot. But Fricka, Wotan’s consort, also Goddess of Marriage and Family, informs Wotan that she finds Siegmund’s manner of bonding with his twin sister Sieglinde intolerable and don’t you even think of protecting him because he must die. So much for Wotan’s scheme. Neither, it seems, realizes that Siegmund has already planted the seed of a heroic son in his supposedly lost twin sister Sieglinde (their reunification is the stuff of Die Walküre, Act I; their passionate flight from Sieglinde’s husband Hunding, a forced marriage, lands them later in Act II).
Through Fricka, Wotan, the here-to-fore almighty God of Das Rheingold, feels weakened, saddened, trapped. At a real low point, he pours out his deep inner troubles to his favorite daughter Brünnhilde, who, at the onset of a long dark scene, reassures him (and shares with us) that she is naught but Wotan’s will. After hearing the history of it all, she (and we) understand why Wotan is so miserable. Worse, she is now pressured to obey Wotan’s furious command to support Hunding in the coming battle and let Siegmund fall. This scene is the centerpiece of Act II. Wagner says so himself in a long letter to Franz Lizst.
Following her father’s orders is not at all easy: Brünnhilde has positive, compassionate feelings for Siegmund, her human half-brother, and these are stirred up even more when she witnesses his undying love for Sieglinde (her human half-sister). Shaken, Brünnhilde vows to protect the lovers, first by shielding Siegmund in battle and second by protecting Sieglinde should something go wrong. Of course something goes wrong: a furious Wotan intercedes and Siegmund is slain. Brünnhilde, closes Act II of Die Walküre by quickly fleeing with Sieglinde and with pieces of the shattered sword Notung.
In Act III Sieglinde wishes only for death to join her Siegmund, but Brünnhilde reveals to her that the seed of Siegfried is already growing in Sieglinde’s womb. Insuring the safety of Sieglinde, quick thinking on her part, in fact saves Wotan’s scheme to regain the Ring. Brünnhilde is now an active agent in the world’s salvation. Perhaps knowing this to be so (and also because she asks him to), Wotan summons a Magic Fire to encircle the mountaintop on which Brünnhilde will sleep. Wotan and we, by the music of course, but also because Brünnhilde told us so in the beginning of the Act, know who will find her a generation later.
By Siegfried, Wotan is a tired man who is having second thoughts about this hierarchical structure of things. He’s willing to abdicate, let go, step aside, a move hastened by the fact that in Act III his grandson Siegfried chops his spear of power in half with one fell swoop of the repaired sword Notung, not even giving his grandfather a chance to warn him against playing with sharp objects. Wotan retires to await calmly the downfall of the Gods, which occurs at the end of Götterdämmerung.
At stated above, at first meeting in the opening of Act II of Die Walküre, Brünnhilde, who is the Valkyrie of the title, is totally subjugated by her father’s wishes. As for the ‘Wotan’s will’ thing, indeed she is actually pretty spot-on in her reading of his inner thoughts. Probably somewhere down deep she knows that ultimately she and Wotan’s grandson Siegfried will bring about the end of the old regime and the coming of a new caring community. In fact, at the end of Act III of Siegfried, Siegfried impetuously sings Lache und Lebe, süsseste Lust! Sei mein! Sei mein! Sei mein! Brünnhilde calmly replies O Siegfried! Dein war ich von je!***
Wotan’s rage shocks and confuses her. She subsequently makes a half-hearted attempt to convince Siegmund that his death will lead to glory with the Gods in Valhalla, meet his father, the rest of the family, but he doesn’t buy it. When he threatens to kill Sieglinde so they can be forever united, Brünnhilde discards obedience for compassion and action. Her character continues to evolve in the subsequent operas.
As the broad moments in Die Walküre transpire, it’s good to pay attention to the action, the dialogue and the music referring to the present moment versus the dialogue and music that establish background, the ‘how this all came about’ (the text) or ‘what this moment really means’ (the music).
For instance, the stormy prelude for Act I of Die Walküre is tremendous, Siegmund’s entrance, and Sieglinde’s gentle comforting are in stark contrast, but both are in the present moment, which will continue to be present until Hunding’s Q and A starts. Siegmund’s responses to Sieglinde’s and Hunding’s Q and A are about the events in his past, like why he’s got this cloud of misfortune following him. Here, importantly, Wagner’s music gives us hints about revelations to come: Siegmund remembers aloud that he and his father ‘Wolfe’ often hunted together. One day they returned home to find their dwelling burnt to the ground, his mother slain, and his twin sister gone. A bit later, as he narrates the tale of the disappearance of his father, the Valhalla motif (the Valhalla music from Das Rheingold ) sounds in the orchestra: we know now, or at least suspect, that Wotan is his father (I mean, who else? Valhalla and Wotan? The guy owns this motif!).
Importantly, we sense that Siegmund is someone special, destined to heroic deeds...also he’s a tenor. Why he’s so special, beyond his vocal range and the obvious demonstrations of strength at the end of Act I, comes out in Act II in Wotan’s long monologue described above.
Back to Act I: the drama returns to the present moment when Hunding realizes that Siegmund is, in fact, the unknown warrior who interceded, unsuccessfully it turns out, on the behalf of a maiden being forced into marriage. Hunding arrived too late, finding several of his clan slaughtered, but, chasing after the murderer, now finds the man defenseless in his own hut. Customs of hospitality forbid Hunding from slaying Siegmund right there and then, but tomorrow morning…still in the present moment, Siegmund wonders aloud (as they all do, this is opera don’t forget) about a sword promised to him by his father in a time of need and, no surprise, he’s feeling needy a lot right now. The Sword leitmotif (also from Das Rheingold, but as yet undefined as such) sounds from the orchestra and a ray of light from the dying fire illuminates a sword buried to the hilt in the trunk of a large, ancient ash tree in the center of Hunding’s hut.
Sieglinde, who has slipped a sleeping draught into Hunding’s nightly tipple, tells Siegmund that at her wedding a strange man in gray with a large hat, only one eye visible, thrust a sword into the trunk. To date no man has been able to extract it. At this revelation, we nod knowingly: too many coincidences here, Wotan has only one eye and probably a large hat…hmmmm.
In the moment, Sieglinde is certain that Siegmund is that hero for whom the sword was meant. As she recounts this, the Valhalla and Sword leitmotifs are woven into the music. The two are already in love, you can feel it; in the frenzy that ensues, Siegmund yanks the sword from the tree, he and Sieglinde realize that they are brother and sister (oops), and they ecstatically run off, to the extent that Wagnerian singers can run off, into the night to sire the next generation, soon to be named Siegfried.
But wait there’s more. The music opening Act II is BIG, it continues the desperate energy of their flight, evolving into the thundering music of Hunding’s pursuit, but, without losing momentum, it morphs into music soon to be associated with Brünnhilde and other eight Valkyries (her sisters). Curtain up, present moment, Wotan encourages his favorite daughter Brünnhilde (by Erda, the Goddess of Earth) to come to Siegmund’s defense against Hunding, etc., etc., but soon thereafter, Wotan is recounting the past in the long Act II monologue described above.
The musical motifs compound the meaning of the moments because as the drama progresses they more than likely come from emotional scenes in the early operas. In the wild beginning of Act III of Die Walküre, after the famous Ride of the Valkyries, Brünnhilde hastens to find a way for Sieglinde to escape Wotan’s wrath. Sieglinde and we are informed that she carries “the world’s noblest hero” in her womb, and his name is Siegfried…it’s a big moment. Sieglinde’s soaring response O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid! introduces a new motif: Redemption, so named in Deryck Cooke’s famous audio guide to the Ring’s motifs on Decca. This motif will reappear as a softer variation before Brünnhilde’s entrance with Siegfried in the Prologue of Götterdämmerung and also sublimely stated again as the final theme at the end of the opera.
Said earlier, for me Brünnhilde is the centerpiece of Wagner’s Ring. The emotional journey she embarks on in the beginning of Act II of Die Walküre, through her rescue of Sieglinde at its end, her banishment from her father and sisters and the magic fire of Act III, her glorious awakening years later at Siegfried’s kiss at the end of Siegfried, and all of the emotional ups and downs of Götterdämmerung, which ends with her engulfed in the flames of the Siegfried’s funeral pyre…tears one’s heart out. It’s a cumulative thing, built up by every moment on stage leading up to it.
Comparing Die Walküre to Lohengrin, or even to Das Rheingold, one senses that Wagner really threw his heart and soul into this score: philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s assertion that music expresses the will, the unconscious source deeper than that for conscious rule-bound composition, gave him permission to let it all hang out. Plus, Wagner (Siegmund) was in love with Mathilde Wesendonck (Sieglinde), but he (Wotan) was also being nagged by his wife Minna (Fricka) to write something a bit more immediately marketable than a fourteen hour four opera tetrology.
But wait, there’s more: even after being asked to leave the Wesendonck estate, Wagner is still in love with M. Unfortunately, composing the early acts of Siegfried doesn’t let him vent it musically…so he stops midway in Act II, his heart’s really not into it, and instead embarks on Tristan und Isolde, the ultimate love story.
But I digress. In the libretto for the RCA Soria Series Die Walküre, 1961, the first complete studio recording in stereo and the first on my shelf **** (remember the big red album box?), conductor Erich Leinsdorf ended his introductory notes with “As you listen to this score, you enter a forest with very tall, very old trees and you ascend a rock which is more barren and higher and more frightening than the Alps. At the end you watch a fire which is grander than the burning of Rome. This is dream stuff, with the deepest instincts of love, hate, and violence unleashed, speaking a language of passion, romanticism, enchantment. I envy those who have yet to make its acquaintance.”
May your entry into Die Walküre be magical and enviable!
Hope this helped.
* There are two exceptions from this ‘single day’ thing: Scene I of Das Rheingold, in which the Nibelung Alberich ravages innocent Nature by stealing the Gold of the Rhine from the temptingly playful Rheinmädchen, establishes the starting point of the cycle. But this heinous theft is likely much earlier in time than the ‘single day’ of the ensuing three scenes of Das Rheingold. When we next meet Alberich in his home court beneath the Earth in Scene III he’s already forged the magic Ring and forced his miserable brother Mime into smithy servitude. Mime has just crafted a magic helmet for the boss. Look, for that matter, Alberich has enslaved the whole race of the Nibelungs, plunging them into forced labor so that he can amass unheard of wealth. How they shriek when they are summoned by his call! Sound familiar? Ask Karl Marx. Back to the point: as with most start-up businesses, these things take time.
** Not surprising Siegfried’s death is a big deal: Wagner’s Ring project started with a single opera Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death, draft 1848, a little night music drafted by 1850), but, in the midst of working music dramatic theoretical things out in grand prose publications, he then wanted to put on stage, in a preceding opera, Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried), the tale of Siegfried’s youth and heroism, the dragon, the wall of fire, waking Brünnhilde with a kiss, etc. etc., that good stuff to be found in the early parts of the German epic Nibelungenlied. As his conception of the Ring broadened to cosmic proportions, he added where Siegfried came from, as in ‘now let’s meet the parents,’ and how Brünnhilde fell asleep on the rock (Die Walküre) and why these are all important things. Das Rheingold dramatizes how the whole thing started, introduces the tribes, etc. The Ring libretti were completed in December of 1852. Wagner composed the music in the proper order, completing the score for Götterdämmerung in November of 1874. To be fair, he also wrote and produced Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in between, each premiering before any of the Ring operas. The complete Der Ring des Nibelungen premiered in a specially built festival theater on the outskirts of Bayreuth in Bavaria in August of 1876. It is still performed there to this day as a summer festival. As it should be, though these days not often as you might like to see it staged.
*** Siegfried: Laugh and live! Sweetest delight! Be mine! Be mine! Be mine! Brünhilde: O Siegfried! I have always been yours! Translation is from Solti Ring on Decca CDs, courtesy Deutsche Grammophon.
****The cast of Soria Series RCA was state of the art Wagner then: Erich Leinsdorf conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, George London, Rita Gorr, Gré Brouswentijn, and David Ward. The recording is currently released on Decca CDs. In the spring of 1965, Washington’s birthday as I recall, Die Walküre at the Met starred Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, George London, Irene Dalis, Leonie Rysanek, and David Ward, William Steinberg conducting. Stood in line all day; back stage after for autographs too. Vivid as yesterday, as is the second Die Walküre, the new Schneider-Siemssen production, Herbert von Karajan’s Met debut on November 21, 1967. Another great cast, Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers again, Christa Ludwig, Thomas Stewart, Gundula Janowitz and Karl Ridderbusch, these last two making their Met debuts. So many more to follow.
One source for some of the above is Wagner’s RING of the Nibelung: the full German text with a new translation and commentaries. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. But mostly what I write here comes from experiencing the Ring at the Met, on video and on recordings.
Photos: Winnie Klotz for Hildegard Behrens; Ken Howard for the Met current production; painting of Wotan and his little girl by Delitz, p. 367 in The Victor Book of the Opera, published by the Victor Talking Machine Co., Camden, NJ in 1912.
Enjoy! March is in like a lion so far!
Happy trails! OM