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Wagner’s Ring Cycle – An Operaphobe Reviews “Die Walkure”

Posted on 12 Sep 2012

Die Walkure 

Let me begin by saying, if you know Wagner at all, you’re familiar with “Die Wakure.” 

Even the Bugs Bunny school of opera has this one down. (And, admittedly, I hummed “Kill the Wabbit” absentmindedly while I watched the standout performance and spectacular staging. Some things are just embedded in your psyche.)

I mean, if the opera was good enough to show before the suite was finished – in spite of the composer’s express orders (we’re talking to you King Ludwig II of Bavaria), you know it’s a jewel. You also know it was particularly good if Wagner’s friends went to see it, despite his P.O.ed-ness, and couldn’t resist coming to tell him how much they loved it. 

Poor Wagner, it must have been a hard life.

Anyway, the music is spectacular, the plot is engaging, and this production by the Met is completely engrossing.

But I still have a problem with it. 

Call me petty, but I’ve never been able to get over the horror at the idea of Olympian (or, in this case, Asgardian) incest. Now, as a favorite Lit professor once remarked, the Greek gods were basically all powerful orangutan’s running around armed with Uzis, and – though they’re perhaps a tad more sophisticated – I probably shouldn’t expect more of the Norse heavenly beings. But that doesn’t change the fact that I just can’t quite make it jive in my mind.

I guess it’s the nature of (past) royal families. But there’s a reason to be freaked out, right? Well, freaked out might be a tad harsh. Deeply disturbed seems fair. I mean, the Hapsburg lip was a sign that too much family closeness is a bad thing. Yes?

But, enough fixating. Wagner didn’t invent the myths – he just compiled them, did a touch of exposition and set them to a profoundly majestic score! And that, I think you’ll agree, we can all enjoy.

And, as promised, your uncouth spoilers for the day! Read on, or join us tonight at 8 p.m. for the more sophisticated version.

“Die Walkure” opens as an exhausted mortal, Siegmund, busts into a strange house and crashes by the hearth. Not too long after, the hot lady of the house finds him - and sparks fly. Too bad she’s hitched. Hubby Hunding bursts in and wants to know exactly who’s in his house.

Turns out Siegmund’s having a bad time of it. He even gives his name as “Woeful,” and goes on to tell about his hard and disaster-riddled life.

The school of hard knocks isn’t over for old “Woeful,” though. His latest disaster involved fleeing enemies … who just happen to be Hunding’s kin. Hunding decides that, to settle all of that, they’ll just have to fight to the death in the morning.

Fortunately for poor Siegmund, he can call on dear old birth dad, who just happens to be Wotan, King of the Gods, in human disguise. Apparently, Daddy-o promised Sigmund a sword at some point in the past. They 

Not too much later, the dame reappears after she drugged hubby dear with a sleeping potion. Guess what? Things aren’t all that happy at home, and during her forced wedding, a one-eyed stranger (actually good ole Wotan) thrust a sword into a tree that no one’s been able to yank out since.

Seeing as how Sieglinde – the lovely lady of the house – was so sweet to drug her hubby and is obviously unhappy, Siegmund – an all-around good guy – can’t happy but fall for her. There’s affection – and a promise to whoop up on old hubby and set her free from her unhappiness.

Moonlight floods the scene. Sieglinde and Siegmund sing about love, spring and general warm fuzzies.

At this point, Sieglinde asks lover boy more about his dad – and finds out he gave a false name earlier. Daddy’s “real” name is Walse, who just happens to be Sieglinde’s dad, too. And suddenly, she realizes Siegmund is her twin brother! But does that cool the flames? Of course not! This is mythology we’re talking about!

Love! Danger! Intrigue! Romance! Incest! 

Dramatically, Siegmund frees the sword from the tree, claims his twin as his bride and rejoices over the union of the Walsungs (half-god siblings). Then, we move on to the second act. And, really, how are you going to top that?

Well, we begin with a change of scenery and go back to the realm of the gods.

High, high in the mountains, Daddy Wotan tells his full-on goddess daughter Brunnhilde to go save little half-brother in his fight with Hunding. (Brunnhilde is a Valkyrie – something of a warrior princess who decides who lives and dies on the battle field.) Brunnhilde is more than happy to help and sets out to do just that.

Unfortunately for Wotan, he just can’t quite get himself out of hot water with his wife – and goddess of marriage – Fricka. While Fricka isn’t terribly concerned about a sibling union, she does insist that Wotan has to defend Hubby Hunding’s marriage rights against Siegmund.

The gods can be ridiculous, but they should have standards, right?

Apparently, Fricka does. She doesn’t even care about his Kingness’s argument that Siegmund could save the gods by winning back the all-powerful ring from the dragon, Fafner.

But at this point, Wotan realizes that it’s all a zero-sum game. He will lose his power if he doesn’t enforce the law and he’ll lose power if there’s no one to secure the ring. In the end, he does what good ol’ Fricka demands.

About this time, Brunnhilde comes home, and dad tells her he’s changed his mind, and that she’s going to have to fight on Hunding’s side in the morning.

Meanwhile, in the mortal world, Sigmund is still comforting his worried sister-bride, and watches over her while she falls asleep (Team Edward, anyone?). Along that time, Brunnhilde comes to him in a vision, telling him he’ll dies soon and be taken to the warrior’s paradise, Valhalla.

Siegmund’s not having it, though. He spouts back that he’s not leaving Sieglinde – and that he’ll kill them both if Brunnhilde doesn’t back up his sword in the fight w/ Hunding.

Brunnhilde is touched by baby brother’s steadfastness, and – in a moment of rebellion – decides to help Seigmund instead. 

So off Siegmund goes to fight Hunding, Brunnhilde at his side, but just when Siegmund is about to win, Wotan shows up – and he’s a stickler for the rules. Just as Siegmund is about to win, Wotan shatters it and Hunding kills Siegmund. But Brunnhilde isn’t done yet, she sweeps Sieglinde and the broken weapon off in the aftermath. An understandably disappointed Wotan decides he doesn’t want Hunding around either, and kills him of with a wave of the hand before leaving to punish Brunnhilde.

And so ends Act II. We move on to Act III! (Hang in there, it’s worth it.)

Brunnhilde’s eight warrior princess sisters have all gathered on their mountaintop, doing their job and taking slain heroes to Valhalla. Understandably, they’re a bit surprised to see Brunnhilde bring a women to their peak. Once they find out she’s hiding Sieglinde and fleeing an angry dad, the sisters are a bit reluctant to hide her.

At the same time, Sieglinde’s a bit numb – despairing over brother-husband’s death. But, Brunnhilde tells her she pregnant with Siegmund’s child, and she perks up a bit. Rather than waiting around an moaning any more, Sieglinde makes off with the sword pieces, thanks Brunnhilde and heads off to the forest – just in time.

Once Wotan shows up, Burnnhilde’s basically screwed. He sentences her to become mortal – and shuts the other warrior princesses up by promising to do the same for them if they don’t pipe down. To avoid further controversy, they head out. 

Left alone with daddy dearest, Brunnhilde defends herself, saying that she was just doing what Wotan REALLY wanted to do. But Wotan’s not buying her pitch. The warrior princess must become mortal and lie in sleep as a prize for any man who finds her. Brunnhilde does succeed on one point, though. She asks that, while she’s knocked out, dad sets up a wall of fire only the bravest hero can penetrate to find her. With some kind of godly foreknowledge, they both know the hero will be Sieglinde’s child.

Moving along, sad and supposedly just king Wotan kisses Bunnhilde’s eyes with sleep and mortality and calls the fire god to encircle her sleeping perch with flames. As he heads out, Wotan sets a spell that prevents anyone who fears his spear from braving the flames.

And, thus, ends “Die Walkure.” Ta da! Sufficiently interested? See a much more elegant presentation tonight at 8 p.m. 


TUNE IN:

“Great Performances at the Met: The Ring Cycle – Die Walkure,” 8 p.m. – 12 a.m.

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