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Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the second in the cycle of four operas, or music-dramas, by Richard Wagner, correctly called Der Ring des Nibelungen, but frequently referred to simply as The Ring. As we have seen previously, Das Rheingold, the first in the cycle, is really a prequel to the other three, which tell a more-or-less continuous narrative.
While You Were Away...
As well as the action on the stage, during this opera we learn a number of documentary facts that will be important either in the present opera, or in the ones that are to follow. Since the end of the action in Das Rheingold, Wotan, the chief of the gods, has fathered, with Erda, the Earth goddess, a band of nine daughters, the Valkyries, whose job it is to carry dead heroes from the field of battle to Valhalla. Here they form an army to defend the fortress from possible attack by Alberich, from whom Wotan has, of course, stolen the Rhine Gold. Wotan's favourite among the Valkyries is Brünnhilde, the heroine of the complete Ring cycle.
Wotan has also had a liaison with a mortal woman, the outcome of which is twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde – no wonder his wife Fricka was keen to keep him at home more!! Wotan's objective in this is a hope that they will assist the gods to regain possession of the fateful Ring.
The opera is set in three Acts. Act One is laid in a forest hut, Acts Two and Three mainly in a wild, rocky place.
A short, stormy Prelude in the orchestra represents a storm that is raging outside Hunding's hut in a clearing in the forest. The central feature of this hut is a huge ash tree, around which it is built. A tired and injured Siegmund rushes in. Seeing that the hut is apparently empty, he lays down to rest. Sieglinde, Hunding's wife, enters quietly and sees the stranger. Since her husband is away, custom demands that she offer him hospitality until her husband returns. She brings him water and offers to tend his wounds. Hunding returns and is both surprised and suspicious to find a stranger in his home. He notes the resemblance between his wife and the stranger and asks him how he comes to be here.
Siegmund tells them that long ago he was out one day hunting with his father. When they returned home, they found his mother dead, his twin sister missing and their home burned down. He and his father lived for years in the woods, frequently attacked by the people who murdered his mother, but they defended themselves well. In one skirmish, he was separated from his father and later found only his wolf-skin cloak1. From then on, he lived and wandered alone. He tells how, in his most recent fight, he attempted to rescue a young girl from being forced by her family into a marriage against her will. He killed her brothers, but others came and in his attempt to defend her, his weapons were cut from him. He was forced to flee, leaving the girl dead. Hunding realises that Siegmund is his own enemy, and warns him that he is safe for the night, but tomorrow they must fight. Hunding sends his wife out to prepare his night drink and to wait for him in their bedroom.
Alone, with no weapons, and with the prospect of having to face his host next day in single-handed combat, Siegmund bemoans his dogged bad luck, and recalls the promise his father made him that in his hour of need he would find a sword. A shaft of light from the fire illuminates a place on the ash tree where a sword is buried up to the hilt. Sieglinde reappears and tells him that she has drugged Hunding's drink and he will not awake. She urges him to escape. She also tells him that on her wedding day (she is unhappily married), a stranger dressed in a grey cloak – the music tells us that this was Wotan – came and plunged a sword into the huge ash tree. Although many have tried, nobody since has been able to pull the sword out. They both realise that she is the twin sister he lost, that they are in love, and that the sword in the tree is intended for Siegmund. He pulls the sword from the tree, names it Notung (Needy or Needful), and as the curtain falls, he falls passionately on his sister.
The long second act of Die Walküre, lasting an hour and a half, is possibly the most important in the whole of the Ring cycle. The act of betrayal (as he sees it) by Wotan's daughter, and the consequences arising from it, will echo through the storyline from hereon.
The action moves to the next day. Siegmund and Sieglinde have eloped, pursued by Hunding, who is now sworn to kill Siegmund – a fight is inevitable. In a wild, rocky place, high up in the mountains, Wotan has summoned Brünnhilde, his favourite daughter among the nine Valkyries. He instructs her to protect Siegmund in his battle with Hunding and ensure that Siegmund is the victor. Wotan's wife Fricka is seen charging towards them in a chariot pulled by rams. She is beside herself with rage. As guardian of marriage and its vows, she demands that Wotan allow Siegmund to be killed by Hunding. 'When did it ever happen that brother and sister were lovers?' she demands. Wotan tries to shrug it off, saying that just because something has not happened before, it does not mean it cannot happen. Fricka goes on to chide him about his own cheating. Wotan argues that the only solution to the crisis facing the gods requires a hero who is free from divine protection. 'Then take the sword away from Siegmund', she demands. 'Siegmund won it for himself in adversity', counters Wotan. 'Nonsense' retorts Fricka, 'You created the adversity for him'. Wotan has lost; Fricka has exposed the fallacy; he was merely deluding himself. She now demands that neither he nor Brünnhilde do anything to assist Siegmund. Wotan has no choice but to give his oath on it.
Fricka laughs and leaves as Brünnhilde returns. 'I have been caught in my own trap', grumbles Wotan. He tells Brünnhilde the events of Das Rheingold; how Alberich is nursing a grudge that must eventually result in his recovering the Ring, which in turn must lead ultimately to the downfall of the gods, as predicted by Erda. Only a hero such as Wotan tried to create, but one totally selfless and unaided, can recover the Ring - and through love undo Alberich's curse. Now, to please Fricka, Wotan must allow his (and Erda's) son to die. Although its significance escapes us for the moment, Wotan tells Brünnhilde (and us, the audience) that Alberich has seduced a mortal woman by bribery with gold from the treasure and by force, and she is now carrying a child – the true significance of this will not become apparent until the final opera in the cycle, Götterdämmerung. Brünnhilde begs her father to change his mind again and allow Siegmund to win and to live, but Wotan angrily gives her explicit instruction that Hunding is to be the winner.
Siegmund and Sieglinde now enter, in flight from Hunding. Sieglinde is exhausted, but she will not rest. In her terror she imagines Hunding's hounds catching and killing Siegmund – she faints. Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund and tells him that he is to die and must go with her to join the other heroes in Valhalla. He refuses to go without Sieglinde. Brünnhilde promises to watch out for Sieglinde and the child she is now carrying, but Siegmund says that if the sword given him will no longer protect him, then both Sieglinde and the child shall die by it. Brünnhilde makes a decision that will be her own undoing, and vows to defy her father and to aid Siegmund to victory.
Hunding and Siegmund now face each other. Brünnhilde is protecting Siegmund with her shield. Siegmund raises his sword and is about to kill Hunding when Wotan appears. The sword shatters on Wotan's spear and Hunding kills Siegmund. Brünnhilde carries Sieglinde and the broken pieces of the sword off on her horse. Wotan looks at the body of Siegmund on the ground, then at Hunding. Contemptuously he waves his arm and Hunding falls dead on the spot. Wotan then vows punishment for Brünnhilde and the scene ends with him riding off in pursuit of her.
The Prelude to Act Three is the famous Ride of the Valkyries, used so effectively by director Francis Ford Coppola in a scene in the film Apocalypse Now, in which a swarm of helicopter gun ships prepare to attack the beach. Back to the Ring: the Valkyries, all except Brünnhilde, have been collecting dead heroes on their horses and taking them to Valhalla. Brünnhilde arrives on her horse Grane2, with Sieglinde on her saddle. She begs her sisters to protect her from the wrath of their father, Wotan, who is now approaching in a storm, but they dare not take her side.
With Siegmund dead, Sieglinde has no wish to live, but when she is told that she is carrying a child, she asks for the Valkyries' protection. Brünnhilde gives her the broken pieces of the sword, tells her to name the child Siegfried and to hide in a forest where Fafner, the giant, has taken the form of a dragon and guards the gold treasure in a cave. Wotan is unlikely to go there. Before sending her off, she also tells her that one day Siegfried will be a greater hero than even his father was, and will forge the broken pieces of the sword into a new one. Wotan arrives and demands that the other Valkyries stop trying to hide Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde steps forward – both father and daughter must now face the consequences of their actions.
Wotan's wrath is unquenchable. She was his favourite he says, but she has betrayed him. As a punishment, she will be banished from Valhalla forever. She is to lie on a rock, Wotan will cast a magic sleep on her, from which she can only be awoken by a man to whom she will thenceforth belong as his wife: she is to be a mortal woman. The other Valkyries beg their father to forgive her, but he is adamant, and sends them away with a warning not to interfere.
The final great scene of this opera is a tender dialogue between father and daughter. Wotan's anger has subsided and been replaced by the love for his daughter. Brünnhilde argues that she was really carrying out Wotan's original and true wish, a wish that he only reversed in order to placate Fricka. 'Do you think it was easy to decide against my heart's wishes?' he asks. 'I did what I had to do, and now we must be separated'. Brünnhilde now knows that the decision is final and asks that at least it should be a heroic mortal who awakes her. She asks that her sleep be protected by a ring of fire to deter ordinary mortals from approaching her. 'You ask too much', he says at first, but finally grants her wish. Having bid each other goodbye, Wotan closes her visor and covers her with her shield. With Brünnhilde now asleep on the rock, and her horse Grane sleeping on the ground beside her, Wotan describes a circle around the space with his spear and bids Loge, the god of fire and cunning, to guard the place with fire. With one last look at his daughter, Wotan leaves the stage and the curtain falls.