By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org
The second installment of Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, Die Walküre is the most popular and most self-contained episode in the epic tetralogy. The stunning and evocative Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production stars the great Hildegard Behrens who brings deep empathy to the role of Brünnhilde, the favorite daughter of the god Wotan (James Morris – we’ve seen him as Don Giovanni and in Hamlet and Turandot) who nevertheless defies him. Morris’s portrayal of Wotan is deservedly legendary, as is Christa Ludwig’s, as Wotan’s demanding wife, Fricka. Jessye Norman (we’ve seen her as Ariadne auf Naxos) and Gary Lakes are the incestuous lovers Sieglinde and Siegmund, and Kurt Moll is the evil Hunding. James Levine and the Met orchestra provide gorgeous color and drama.
The opera, itself, combines the machinations of mythical gods and demigods with the deeply human love story of the hero Siegmund and the captive Sieglinde, whose passion for each other cannot be quelled even when they discover that they are long-lost brother and sister. Die Walküre also features one of opera’s very most touching father-daughter relationships — between Wotan, ruler of the gods, and his warrior-maiden daughter Brünnhilde, leader of the Valkyries. Wagner’s score, as usual, requires singers almost as superhuman as the characters they portray and features his always glorious orchestral music, making for a splendid (if rather long!) opera experience.
As we begin the second installment of The Ring Cycle, many years have passed since the theft of the Rheinmaiden’s gold by Albercht, the Niebelung, and the building of Valhalla. A restless Wotan has been wandering in the world of Humans. As Gods are wont to do, he has apparently fathered many children along the way – among them, the nine Valkyries (including Brünnhilde, Die Walküre of the title). The Valkyries are warrior maidens whose job it is to retrieve fallen heroes from the battlefield and bring them up to Valhalla. With his human mate from the Völsung clan Wotan has also fathered the twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who were separated from each other in very early childhood by fierce earthly clan wars.
The young Siegmund, alone and on his own for many years, is still fleeing his family’s enemies. Exhausted, unarmed and wounded, he stumbles into a large hut in the forest that is strangely built around a huge ash tree which just happens to contain a sword buried to its hilt in the trunk (needless to say, no one has been able to remove it since the day it was placed there). Sieglinde, having been abducted by a rival clan and forced to marry their leader Hunding, is now living in the selfsame hut which belongs to her husband. She enters to find the wounded Siegfried lying on the floor, and as she tries to give him help, finds herself inexplicably drawn to the handsome stranger. When Hunding returns, it becomes increasingly clear that he is one of Siegmund’s pursuers. However, he grants Siegmund the traditional hospitality of his dwelling for the night, promising to fight him to the death in the morning.
Keep watching this legendary cast to witness Siegmund’s freeing of the magical sword from the tree, the twins’ incestuous love making, Fricka’s resultant anger (she’s the Goddess of marriage so she sticks up for Hunding), the fierce battle that leaves both Siegmund and Hunding dead, and the rescue of a now pregnant Sieglinde by the Valkyrie Brünnhilde which so angers her father, Wotan, that he makes her mortal and imprisons her in sleep on a mountain of fire until a suitable hero can pass through the flames and awaken her (see the next two operas!). All this and more is in the jam-packed plot that also includes perhaps the most famous piece of music in all opera – The Ride of the Valkyries. If you saw this one during the Met’s Wagner Week in March, you saw a different production with a different – and also nearly ideal (but very much updated) cast including Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund – needless to say, he’s my Siegmund of choice – but the rest of this cast is difficult to top. Enjoy!
1. James Morris as Wotan standing over the sleeping Brünnhilde and creating the mountain of fire that will protect her in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at the Met, 1989. Photo Credit: Johan Elbers / Metropolitan Opera.
2. Gary Lakes as Siegmund and Jessye Norman as Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at the Met, 1989. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archive.
3. Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde and James Morris as her father, Wotan in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at the Met, 1989. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archive.