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Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle (Part 4: ‘Die Walküre’)BY: Steve Cohen 05.12.2009
Wagner really was at the top of his game when he wrote Die Walküre. Perhaps he was energized by the chance to glamorize incest and throw it in the face of conventional society. But his greatest inspiration was the difficult father-daughter relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde.
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Niebelungs). By Richard Wagner; James Levine, conductor. Through May 9, 2009 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York. (212) 362-6000 or http://www.metoperafamily.org.
Fourth in a series of articles about Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Wagner really was at the top of his game when he wrote Die Walküre. Maybe he was inspired because the players in the first act are humans, not gods. Or he felt (from personal experience) a special interest in the subject of marital infidelity. Perhaps he was energized by the chance to glamorize incest and throw it in the face of conventional society. Probably all of this is true. But his greatest inspiration was the difficult father-daughter relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde.
Here Wagner surpasses the heart-wrench of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Gilda and all other operatic father-daughter relationships. He magnificently explores the tension between a flawed father and his favorite daughter, who enables her father’s worst instincts and then defies him. The heartbreak of their final confrontation is defined with touching words set to exquisite music. Wotan’s Farewell is just one of five “hit songs” in this opera, including the Ride of the Valkyries and the Magic Fire Music that help make this the most popular opera in the Ring cycle.
Die Walküre grabs audiences from the start. The curtain rises on a situation unconnected to what we’ve seen so far in the Ring. It’s a dark and stormy night. A man comes out of the rainstorm, bursts into a hut and falls exhausted. He is comforted by a woman who lives in the hut, and immediately we see a mutual attraction. This is a classic introduction to a story of mystery, adventure and romance.
That would suffice to hold our interest, but Die Walküre goes further. The man and woman, we learn, are a long-separated twin brother and sister, fathered by Wotan. We saw in Das Rheingold that the king of the gods rashly makes contracts and then violates them. He lacks the strength of character to declare that he wants to renegotiate but instead employs others to evade his promises. Now we learn that Wotan is also a philandering husband who cheated on his Fricka, his wife, with numerous women and fathered many children. Siegmund and Sieglinde are two of them, and nine warrior women (the Valkyries) were born of Wotan’s liaison with the earth-goddess Erda.
Wagnerian shock therapy
The first act ends with brother and sister falling into each other’s arms as she leaves her husband. I believe that the philandering Wagner arranged to pair the brother and sister as a way to shock and to defy conventional rules about relationships. What better couple to sire a boy who will defy all laws? Wagner created this boy, Siegfried, as “the man of the future, desired and willed by us,” to break the edicts that his grandfather, Wotan, feels unable to rescind.
(This scenario is also an uncannily eerie harbinger of Germany’s future. Hitler’s paternal grandmother, you may recall, was an unmarried domestic servant impregnated in her 40s by an unknown partner, most likely the master of the house— or was it Wotan?)
An alternate interpretation suggests the political thinking of Wagner the radical, who had to flee Dresden to avoid prosecution for his part in the abortive revolution of 1848: that the proletariat are all brothers and sisters who should get together. This concept is intriguing, although I can’t picture Siegmund and Sieglinde as “workers of the world.” Sieglinde worked as a housewife, but neither of them toiled in factories similar to those that the revolutionaries of 1848 wanted to organize.
In Act II, Wotan’s wife berates him for condoning adultery and incest, saying that the twins must be punished or the authority of the gods will be undermined. Wotan agrees to Fricka’s demand and allows Siegmund to be killed by Sieglinde’s husband.
Wotan’s daughter Brünnhilde tries to do what her father wants rather than what he says. She helps Sieglinde to escape and bear Siegmund’s child. Cowed by his wife and intimidated by the responsibilities of his office, Wotan feels he must punish Brünnhilde for her disobedience. His harsh sentence banishes her from the presence of the gods and strips away her divine immortality. He won’t allow himself to see his daughter again.
This brief introduction was sufficient to entice my wife, who previously was never a Wagner fan. Now she has seen three Walküres. She’s a fortunate woman to have seen it conducted by Gergiev, Maazel and Levine, and she eagerly looks forward to more.
Wagner rejects the Romantic poets
Wagner the composer gives us pulsing music that denotes desperation, then sweeps into passionate outpourings. His music is lush and romantic but Wagner rejected the forms of Romantic poets, ignoring iambic pentameter. His lyrics stay away from end-rhymes; instead they employ archaic words and patterns that suggest classicism and timelessness.
Wagner the librettist loves to apply alliteration to his characters. In Rheingold the maidens sang “weia waga woge welle.” Now, in Die Walküre, Wagner has Siegmund sing about the coming of springtime: “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond, in mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz; auf linden Lüften leicht und lieblich.” (“Winter storms have waned in the moon of May, on balmy breezes, light and lovely.”)
The lovers say alliterative things like, “Dich kannt’ich, deutlich und klar” (“I knew you, distinct and clear”), “Erglänzte in goldner Glut” (“Shining with a golden glow”) and “Da bleicht die Blüte” (“then the blossom bleached”).
I realize that I’m devoting a great deal of space to the language. I do that intentionally, because the use of projected titles causes modern audiences to listen less carefully to the words. I want to encourage you to listen more closely.
About that Bavarian pronunciation…
A reader who does listen asked this question: Why is Bavarian pronunciation used, rather than northern German? For example, why is ich pronounced ish instead of with a guttural sound?
After talking with two men who’ve conducted the Ring, we conclude that singers are taught to place their sound forward, rather than in the throat, to sound better. There’s also the possibility that it’s a tradition handed down by disciples of Wagner from the time when the composer lived in Bavaria and his Ring operas had their first performances in the Bavarian cities of Munich and Bayreuth.
Wagner’s use of leitmotifs continues to be masterful. When Siegmund sings of his life story, the orchestra plays part of the Valhalla motif, so we listeners learn what Siegmund himself does not know– that he is a child of the king of the gods. Again, when Siegmund sees the handle of a sword protruding from a tree, the music tells us that it was Wotan who placed it there.
Die Walküre ends with one of the most affecting scenes in all opera. Wotan has been forced to renounce his two most beloved children, Siegmund and Brünnhilde, and he is a broken man/god. When he sings farewell to his daughter, he is saying farewell to his own dreams. And when he lights a fire to surround her and protect her, he is foretelling the way in which all that he has built will be destroyed.
Morris the magnificent
At the Met this spring, James Morris was a magnificent Wotan, singing with surpassing beauty. I saw Gary Lehman and Waltraud Meier as a good Siegfried and Sieglinde. Then, later, I heard Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, the best Sieglinde in recent memory. John Tomlinson was the dark and sinister Hunding. Iréne Theorin made an effective debut as Brünnhilde, with an exuberant voice and girlish animation. Her interpretation stressed the youthfulness of the goddess as well as her strong will. James Levine conducted with great feeling, exhibited with echt-romantic portamenti, the expressive sliding into and off of certain notes. ◆
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