Guess who spent close to 5h yesterday watching Wagner’s Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) at my local Cineworld (they did a live screening from the Metropolitan Opera). I did! I did! And I loved every minute. I have seen only two other Opera pieces in my entire lifetime, one being My Fair Lady when I was 8 (which I hated) and
La Boheme last year which I absolutely loved. I think your brain needs a bit more strength to power through the Opera.
Especially when it sounds like this
And because I didn’t know what the Opera was about and had a major spoiler during the interval, I decided to create a quick post explaining for the common people what Wagner tried to do.
Who was Richard Wagner?
Richard Wagner, in full Wilhelm Richard Wagner, (born May 22, 1813, Leipzig [Germany]—died February 13, 1883, Venice, Italy), German dramatic composer and theorist whose operas and music had a revolutionary influence on the course of Western music, either by extension of his discoveries or reaction against them. Among his major works are The Flying Dutchman (1843), Tannhäuser (1845), Lohengrin (1850), Tristan und Isolde (1865), Parsifal (1882), and his great tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung (1869–76). (source Britannica.com).
Interesting facts: Wagner was promoted during the Nazi era as one of Adolf Hitler’s favourite composers. A rumor also attributes his fatal heart attack due to an argument with his wife Cosima who he thought had a lover in the singer Carrie Pringle.
What the hell is The Ring of the Nibelung?
The works are based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied. The composer termed the cycle a “Bühnenfestspiel” (stage festival play), structured in three days preceded by a Vorabend (“preliminary evening”). The four parts that constitute the Ring cycle are, in sequence:
- Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold)
- Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
- Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
The plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world, forged by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich from gold he stole from the Rhine maidens in the river Rhine. The Ring itself is magic intended to rule the feminine multiplicative power by a fearful act termed as ‘denial of love’ (“Liebesverzicht”). With the assistance of the god Loge, Wotan – the chief of the gods – steals the ring from Alberich, but is forced to hand it over to the giants, Fafner and Fasolt in payment for building the home of the gods, Valhalla, or they will take Freia (the goddess of youth).
Wotan’s schemes to regain the ring, spanning generations, drive much of the action in the story. His grandson, the mortal Siegfried, wins the ring by slaying Fafner (who slew Fasolt for the ring) – as Wotan intended – but is eventually betrayed and slain as a result of the intrigues of Alberich’s son Hagen, who wants the ring for himself.
Finally, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde – Siegfried’s lover and Wotan’s daughter who lost her immortality for defying her father in an attempt to save Siegfried’s father Sigmund – returns the ring to the Rhine maidens as she commits suicide on Siegfried’s funeral pyre. Hagen is drowned as he attempts to recover the ring. In the process, the gods and Valhalla are destroyed.
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
This is gonna be great so bare with me. The opera starts with this guy who is wandering lost in the woods. He’s seeking shelter and he finds this amazing woman who takes him into her home and tells him she can offer him a drink until her husband returns from his hunt. There is a lot of chemical attraction between the two which is immediately noticed by the husband who says upon his return that the two share the same eyes, like snakes. The husband extends his hospitality to the stranger and allows him to stay the night but quickly realises he’s made a mistake when he finds out that this is the man he’s been hunting and challenges him to a fight morning come.
The story unfolds and we find out that the stranger calls himself Wehwalt (“woeful”), that he was a twin and his sister was stolen from birth and raised somewhere far away. Him and his father (who has only one eye), have been fighting the people who got her and married her off against her will.
As he tells the story, we can see the woman stealing glances at him and getting closer to listen.
A sorrowful child cried for my help:
her kinsmen sought to bind in wedlock
unloved, a man with the maid.
Help against wrong gladly I gave,
her ruthless clan met me in fight:
before me foe-men fell.
Struck down and dead lay her brothers:
her arms round their bodies she clasped,
her grief had banished her wrath.
From wildly streaming eyes
she bathed the dead with her tears;
for her brothers in battle slain lamented the
ill -fated bride.
At this point, Sieglinde, realises that she is the bride, she is the woman and swears to help the stranger flee or have a standing chance to fight her husband in the morning.
The husband leaves and Sieglinde and Siegmund (her twin), flee together after declaring their eternal love. At this point, I was like awww, look at the two siblings finding each other in the forest, look how quickly they’ve grown to realise they are family. I was in for a shock, I tell ya. It’s not brotherly love that grows between them.
Thou art the spring
that I have so longed for
in frosty winter’s spell.
My heart greeted thee with blissfullest dread,
as thy look at first on me lightened.
Strange has seemed all I e’er saw,
friendless all that was round me;
like far off things and unknown,
all that ever came near.
When thou camest all was made clear:
as my eyes on thee fell, mine wert thou only:
all I hid in my heart, all I am;
bright as the day dawned on my sight,
like echoing tones struck on my ear,
as in winter’s frosty desert
my eyes first beheld the friend.
Beneath spring’s moon
shinest thou bright;
wrapped in glory of waving hair:
They keep on declaring their love – he loves her, she loves him. He wants to save her from her marriage, she wants to be with him. And then he says he wants to freaking marry his own sister and create a new line of strong Wälsungs. I was like @@ – what type of redneck stuff was Wagner into? Brother marrying sister he just found? I really thought that was just for the Egyptians.. but no, the Norse did it too!
Bride and sister
be to thy brother:
then flourish the Wälsungs for aye!
Then they run away into the forest and they carry with them a magical sword that their father had left behind, a sword called Nothung.
Act 2 begins and the scene changes. We see their father, Wotan, sitting in Valhalla and here comes his lovely wife. They are like Hera and Zeus from Greek mythology. She is jealous of the multiple affairs that her husband was having and seeks to restore her status and dignity. She orders him to kill his own son who is now carrying out an incestuous relationship with his own sister. She heard about it when Hunding, Sieglende’s husband, called the Goddess of Matrimony to help him deal with a cheating wife. That’s how she find out that her husband went astray again and the twins were like a slap on her face.
I have heard Hunding’s cry,
for vengeance called he on me,
and wedlock’s guardian gave ear to him:
I made oath to punish the deed
of this infamous pair
who rashly wrought him a wrong.
Saddened in spirit, must I behold thee
fare to the fight with the graceless maidens,
whom lawless love hath given to thee
Oh, she’s mad all right. Cheating husband, illegitimate and incestuous children, more bad deeds that the poor man can count. And as she’s ripping him a new one, she makes the request that he end the life of his own child in order to appease her.
Fricka :give order that Siegmund fall.
(breaking out, after a violent inner struggle)
I cannot o’erthrow him, he found my sword.
Fricka: Destroy then its magic, be shattered the steel! Shieldless let him be found!
So Wotan decides to send his favourite Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, to do his dirty work! He explains to her that she only exists due to his will and his will is that must be listened to at all times (very controlling parent indeed), and tells her in no uncertain terms that she must make his other son fail in battle.
Brünnhilde, proud Valkyrie, goes to Siegmund and Sieglinde and she watches them from the distance. She can tell he is madly in love with her and as not to wake her, she talks to Siegmund alone. She does not want to kill him as she respects his heroic acts too much, so she entices him to Valhalla. She tells him of all the others who wait for him on the other side, only if he comes willingly.
The fallen heroes’ hallowed band shall greet thee there with high welcome and love.
Siegmund looks at Sieglinde and asks Brünnhilde if there will be a woman there to meet him. Brünnhilde answers that yes, indeed there will be women there to care for his every wish, any woman he wants except Sieglinde who will have to finish living her mortal life on Earth.
Wish-maidens wait on thee there: Wotan’s daughter friendly there filleth thy cup! [..] Here on earth must she still linger: Siegmund will find not Sieglinde there.
Siegmund does what every man in love will do. Act reckless and decide he does not want to go to Valhalla and instead is ready to face death and the wrath of the Gods (via Brünnhilde).
Then greet for me Walhall,
greet for me Wotan,
greet for me Wälse and all the heroes,
greet too the beauteous wish-maidens:
(firmly) to them I follow thee not!
I nearly cried at this scene (well, I was well teary into it) as Siegmund is torn between his love, the danger he’s in and the threat posed by Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde assures him that she’ll take care of still sleeping Sieglinde but Siegmund wants none of that. He wants to be her protector and her only one and if he can’t protect her (and the child she now carries), he’d rather kill her himself to ensure that she’ll be forever safe. Odd logic but hey, he must be mad at this point.
No other than I, while she lives, shall safeguard the pure one; if death be my doom, I will slay the slumberer here!
Brünnhilde hears the love in his voice and the determination in his action and she stops him and promises to help him even though she’ll get into trouble with Wotan, her big boss up there. So when the fight between Siegmund and Hunding begins, Brünnhilde shows up as a backup and encourages Siegmund. In a massive turn of events, Wotan appears and seeing that the Valkyrie he sent to kill Siegmund is now helping him win, he casts a spell to break Siegmund’s sword and gets him killed. Brünnhilde flees in fear along with Sieglinde as Wotan is dead angry from being betrayed. He even kills Hunding and tells him to go meet his wife Fricka that the deed is done and Siegmund is dead. Man, using a guy as a messenger! He could have left him alive but I think the grief was too much to bear.
Act 3 begins shortly after showing the other Valkyries riding their horses after collecting their bounty from the battlefield. Bones of heroes that have bravely fallen from one side of the battle or another. They see Brünnhilde rushing towards them carrying Sieglinde on the back of her horse and they are terrified to see that a very angry Wotan is following her in a storm cloud not far after.
The Valkyrie sisters refuse to help Brünnhilde as this was a mess she made but they do hide her when Wotan lands. Sieglinde manages to rush away into the forest and stay safe with the knowledge that she is pregnant and the child she mothered with her own brother will be a great hero one day and his name will be Sigfried. I mean, he could have some congenital disease due to the incest, but hey, it’s an opera, and genetics don’t matter.
Wotan is screaming at his daughters telling them he brought them up to be brave and ruthless and tells them in no uncertain terms to hand over Brünnhilde to him so that she could be punished for disobeying him.
Weak-hearted and womanish brood!
Such sorry valor won ye from me?
I fostered you bold to fare to the field,
hard and relentless your hearts I wrought,
and ye wild ones now weep and whine,
when my wrath on a traitor doth fall?
I can totally understand where Wotan is coming from. He had a task and he had to do it himself as Brünnhilde turned from him and followed her own choices. He absolutely tears her a new one and I felt bad while sitting there – this was like a parent disowning a child for being themselves.
wish-maid thou wert to me:
against me thy wish has been turned;
shield-maid thou wert to me:
against me thy shield was upraised;
lot-chooser thou wert to me:
against me the lot hast thou chosen;
But Wotan does not just disown her. He gives her the worst punishment a strong and independent woman can get: she is to be married with an unknown man as soon as possible. It does not matter who he is and how he is like, if he finds the sleeping maiden, he can claim her as a wife and she can say nothing against it. She will become a maid, a servant, bound to obey a stranger.
For here on the rock bound shalt thou be;
defenceless in sleep liest thou locked:
the man shall master the maid
who shall find her and wake her from sleep.
The other Valkyries are outraged (in fact, I would be too!) and remind their father / boss, that such punishment reflects badly on them too
Shall the maiden pale and be withered by man?
Bring not on her this crying disgrace!
They leave shortly after leaving the two of them to talk it out and maybe reach a compromise. Wotan is finally moved by the passionate and he agrees to her one condition. Yes, she will take the punishment and marry the first man to wake her from her slumber – as long as he is worthy enough and brave enough to face a terrible fire.
By thy command enkindle a fire;
with flaming guardians girdle the fell;
to lick with tongue, to bite with tooth the craven,
who rashly dareth
to draw near the threatening rock!
Brünnhilde knows that only a very brave soul can go on the mountain and face the deadly fire and that man will be worthy of her.
Man, I loved this Opera! I could totally feel for the dad whose daughter did not listen to him and got into trouble and also for the woman who went with her own choices and then was punished for them. I felt for the two bound souls who were unknowingly brother and sister and the forbidden love they had (anyone read Angel Sanctuary?) and totally feel the pride and joy of being a demi-god, a Valkyrie. It’s a story about redemption, about love and about doing what is right. I can’t wait to see the follow on scenes!