In the second instalment of our exploration of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Sam Smith explains why Die Walküre is his favourite opera in the Ring Cycle
Not every opera has a happy ending or sees justice prevail, but nevertheless there seems something particularly unusual about the trajectory of Wagner’s Die Wälkure. It begins with the chief god Wotan in a desperate situation, and with a drastic strategy to rescue it, and ends with him in an even worse one, with his plans completely shattered. That is not how most stories progress, although such a description does only represent what is happening on the surface. Die Wälkure is the second of the four operas that comprise Der Ring des Nibelungen, and so, while its ending might seem disastrous, it paves the way for a new order that begins to rise in the third opera Siegfried. Wagner buffs may be particularly attuned to this, but, even without any prior knowledge, Act III’s words and music tell of the promise that awaits beyond the current darkness.
I love Die Wälkure partly because it is the opera in which the characters experience the most change. At the start, although he does not underestimate the enormity of the task, Wotan has a plan to retain his power over the entire world. This has entailed him fathering nine daughters, the Valkyrie, by the earth goddess Erda, to gather mortals who have died in battle, thus creating an army of heroes to protect the gods’ fortress Valhalla. It has also seen him father a brother and sister, Siegmund and Sieglinde, by a mortal mother on earth. He intends them to take back the ring that he surrendered to the giant Fafner, which he cannot do himself because the rules that enabled him to achieve pre-eminence over the world prohibit him from stealing what he gave to fulfil an obligation.
By the end of the opera, however, all of his plans have fallen to pieces. Wotan needs Siegmund to act as a free agent in order to retrieve the ring for him, but his wife Fricka points out that his son cannot be one if he is relying on a sword with godly protections that Wotan left for him. He is thus forced to withdraw his support for Siegmund, who is consequently killed in a battle with Sieglinde’s brutish husband Hunding. At the same time, his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde defied Wotan’s orders by siding with Siegmund in the battle, meaning that the chief god is forced to disown her and no longer has any means to achieve his ends.
At this point, Wotan realises the need to hand over to a new generation of mortals who really can act as free agents because they will be working for themselves rather than him. Thus, while at the start of the opera Wotan’s aim is to protect his position and retain his power, by the end he has accepted that the world is no longer for him. He even engineers events to ensure that the ‘right’ people inherit it by taking steps that mean Siegmund’s as yet unborn son will be the one to rescue the daughter he is forced to abandon.
The huge changes in individuals’ aims are accompanied by equally large emotions, and I also love Die Wälkure because I find it the most moving of the four operas. The two episodes that for me are the most tear jerking both reveal large transformations in attitude and character. The first occurs in Act II when Brünnhilde informs Siegmund he is to die in battle and must follow her to Valhalla. She has spent her entire life believing what her father taught her – that the greatest honour for any mortal man is to die in combat and be taken to Valhalla to be served mead by wish maidens forever more. She is suddenly, however, exposed to a strange thing called love that proves to be so powerful that she is moved to support Siegmund in the battle that will ensue.
The scene is emotional because it is so brilliantly crafted as after Brünnhilde breaks the news to Siegmund, he receives answers to his questions that move him as he learns he shall see his father in Valhalla. Things alter, however, when he discovers that Sieglinde, who he loves beyond anything else, may not accompany him there. His attitude suddenly changes, and it comes as a shock to Brünnhilde to learn that anyone could describe Wotan as a terrible being, or prefer hell to dwelling with him in Valhalla. The climax to the episode then turns things around as within the space of a few moments we move from Siegmund saying he would prefer to see Sieglinde dead as well, to Brünnhilde joyously proclaiming that Sieglinde shall live and Siegmund shall live with her.
“I love Die Wälkure partly because it is the opera in which the characters experience the most change”
I also find Act III, and particularly the way in which it develops, deeply moving. When Wotan bursts on towards the start he is outraged beyond belief at Brünnhilde’s disobedience, and a good performer can radiate such a sense of anger that the audience feel they would not want to be within a hundred yards of him. By the time he sings ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’ (surely one of the most beautiful moments in the entire Ring Cycle) around forty-five minutes later, he is showing such sorrow and tenderness as he says goodbye to his daughter that we have witnessed a complete transformation in his character and aims.
Abandoning Brünnhilde in a deep sleep on a rock initially seems to carry an enormous element of punishment. By the end, however, Wotan reveals such love for her that it feels like an act he has to carry out in order to obey his own rules, and yet one he knows will benefit her rather than him. He has by now agreed to surround the rock with fire to ensure only a hero (specifically Siegmund’s son Siegfried) may rescue her. Thus, while it may seem that Wotan carries out the cruellest action, the real tragedy is his and not Brünnhilde’s. We know there will be a new dawn for her, but that he is about to exit the stage in more ways than one.
Die Wälkure also reveals a pivotal moment in the downfall of Wotan that is often overlooked. This is the end of Act II when the chief god kills Hunding after he has slayed Siegmund. This is usually dismissed as Wotan dispatching a mere cipher in his anger, or at most seen as Wotan’s rebellious (Brünnhilde-esque) side taking precedence over his more calculating ways. However, Fricka had emphasised to him that part of his duty was to uphold marriage vows, meaning he could not support Siegmund in his battle with Hunding. Wotan consequently did not do so, but he could hardly be said to be upholding two people’s marriage by killing one of them. At best he paid lip service to his instruction, and in reality he did exactly the opposite to it. Given that abiding by rules is key to Wotan’s success as chief god, this moment in which he breaks them is an important one in securing his own downfall.
I also love Die Wälkure because it contains such brilliant music, including ‘Winterstürme’ and the famous ‘Ritt der Walküren’. I particularly like the way in which in the opera the leitmotifs are frequently used to capture the tensions that lie at its heart. For example, in the opening to Act I the ‘plodding’ notes, based on Wotan’s Spear motif, that accompany the main storm theme highlight the way in which Siegmund finds himself caught between nature and the gods. Then as soon as the character opens his mouth there is something in the way in which his first line is phrased that tells us things will be going at a slower pace to the first opera Das Rheingold. From now on everything will be explored in more detail, and it is time to settle in for, and above all enjoy, the journey ahead.
Many Ring Cycles are currently available for free online, including Opera North’s concert staging of 2015-16. My DVD recommendations for Die Wälkure are synonymous with those for the Ring as a whole as, from my own experience, where the tetralogy is produced well, so too is Die Wälkure. In this way, I concur with Keith McDonnell’s recommendations for Das Rheingold. The Patrice Chéreau / Pierre Boulez ‘Centenary Ring’ for Bayreuth is exceptional as it presents the Cycle as a critique on the bourgeois attitudes and values that prevailed both in Wagner’s own time and 1976, the year in which the production premiered (it was filmed in 1980). It just shades the also excellent Harry Kupfer / Daniel Barenboim 1988 Bayreuth production (filmed in 1991), which presents the Ring as a story of ecological catastrophe, with the set representing the Welt-Straße or Road of World History.
One of the greatest evenings of my life was a 2005 Prom in which the Royal Opera presented a concert performance of Keith’s Warner’s then new production of Die Wälkure. With Sir Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, and the cast including Sir Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde, Plácido Domingo as Siegmund, Waltraud Meier as Sieglinde, Rosalind Plowright as Fricka and Eric Halfvarson as Hunding, it was simply electric from start to finish. The concert was filmed, and with there being plans to show many classic Proms on BBC 4 over the summer, we can certainly hope that this exceptional performance will be among those chosen for broadcast.