PART I THE OPERA
Last October, as the final curtain descended on Das Reingold, we left our heroes, The Aesir (the gods) ascending the magic rainbow bridge to their new home, Valhalla.
My review of that performance ended with, “And so Das Rheingold ends in true soap-opera style. What is Wotan’s great new idea? How will Fafner use the magic Ring? What will Wotan learn from Erda? Don’t miss Die Walküre, the next episode of this exciting musical drama. Coming to a theater in your neighborhood next May 18 and June 1.”
It has been a mere seven months mortal time since those words were written. But time is different for the gods and much has happened meanwhile. Wotan (Bryn Terfel) has sired nine daughters (the Valkyrie) during an extended visit with Erda the earth-goddess and has also sired the twins Siegmund (Jonas Kaufmann) and Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) during an affair with a mortal woman.
The twins were only a couple of years old when vandals broke into their home, killed Mama and abducted Sieglinde, later selling her into slavery, i.e. marriage. Wotan brought the boy up, but disappeared suddenly when Siegmund was in his late teens.
In Act I Siegmund, now in his early twenties stumbles exhaustedly into the crude forest house of Sieglinde and her abusive husband Hunding (Hans-Peter König). The twins don’t recognize each other but as information is gradually exchanged in beautiful song, Hunding discovers that he must kill Siegmund (as a matter of honor) and the twins discover their relationship.
But Sieglinde slips Hunding a Mickey and runs off with Sigmund even though she is already married and Siegmund is her brother.
Before they leave she notes that he is weaponless and says, “By the way, an old man with one eye dropped in a couple of years ago and left a sword in our tree – said that only a hero could pull it out.”
“Egad,” says Siegmund, “that must have been Dad. He promised me that I’d find a magic sword in my hour of need.” He pulls out the sword and off they go.
Act II begins with Wotan telling Brünnhilde (Deborah Voigt), the oldest of his nine Valkyrie daughters, to be sure that her half-brother doesn’t get hurt in the coming battle with Hunding . “Fine with me,” says Brünnhilde, “But here comes your wife, so I’m outta here.”
Sure enough, Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) sweeps in hopping mad. “I’m goddess of Marriage and the Family. No way are you going to allow this bastard of yours who committed simultaneous incest and adultery to escape his just desserts.” Wotan blusters a bit, but he’s no match for his wife and abjectly gives in.
Brünnhilde doesn’t like the change in plans. She tries to help Siegmund, but Wotan shatters the magic sword and Hunding kills him. Wotan kills Hunding. Brünnhilde takes charge of Sieglinde and they beat a strategic retreat.
Act III begins with the stirring Ride of the Valkyries as the 8 younger sisters ride in on their celestial steeds, each with a fallen hero to join Wotan’s heavenly army in Valhalla. I don’t know how the gods handled gestation, but all 9 appear to be about the same age.
Brünnhilde shows up late with Sieglinde and begs her sisters to hide her from Wotan who is furious with her for disobeying his orders. They say, “What? Defy Daddy? No way, Sis. You’ll have to take what’s coming to you.”
“Okay. I can take it. But we have to save Sieglinde, ‘cause she’s got a little souvenir of Siegmund in her belly who is the whole point of this four-episode soap opera.” They figure the only hope is to send her off alone to the North Woods where Wotan never goes. She gamely trudges off in the nick of time.
Wotan arrives in a real state. Tells Brünnhilde that disobeying his direct order was the worst crime a child of his could commit and must be, will be, punished severely. She will be stripped of her god-hood and become a mere mortal. Further, she will be put into a magic sleep right here on this mountain and will become the property, i.e. wife, of the first man to find her.
“No, Daddy, No. No. By the former love you had for me don’t make me belong to a coward. At least put a spell around me so that only a hero can find me.” Wotan agrees and summons Loge to create a ring of fire that can only be crossed by “a man so brave he doesn’t fear me.”
As so, to the strains of the beautiful Fire Music, Wotan kisses Brünnhilde’s eyes to induce the magic sleep and lays her down within the ring of fire as the curtain falls on Episode 2 of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen. Join us at your neighborhood theater next November 5 for thrilling Episode 3, Siegfried, and find answers to
(1) What happens to the magic Ring?
(2) Will Sieglinde make it safely to the North Woods, and how will her baby grow up?
(3) Who will cross the ring of fire and wed Brünnhilde?
PART II – MY OPINION
So now you know the story. There’s a lot of wonderful music to go with the story – more than 4 hours worth, not counting two long intermissions. But there’s not all that much action, and the Ring can be somewhat static. We’ve come a long ways since 1939 when Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Helen Traubel, Friedrich Schorr, and Kerstin Thorborg all were on stage at the old Met to sing in the 309th performance of Die Walküre. They would all pretty much stride on stage, plant their feet firmly, and raise their stupendous voices in glorious song.
But modern audiences expect a lot more in terms of visual activity. Conductor James Levine and Production Director Robert Lepage do not disappoint in this 529th Met performance. Together with Set Designer Carl Fillion , Costume Designer François St-Aubin , and Lighting Designer Etienne Boucher and a veritable army of technical geeks, they give us a show that kept me fascinated through the whole 4+ hours. Except for the two scheduled (and welcome) intermissions, the scene changes were all seamless. And it was all harmonious with the music.
The basic massive 24-plank set which I described more fully in my Reingold review was back with even more special lighting effects. I was particularly entranced by the way they were used to simulate horses during Ride of the Valkyries. You have to see it to believe it.
It goes without saying for a Met production that all six of the principals had top of the line voices but we also got a lot of good acting. Deborah Voigt almost made me believe that Brünnhilde was a teenager. And it was wonderful to see Stephanie Blythe in the role of Fricka where her more than ample girth was an asset rather than something to be overlooked because of her superior voice.
I have never seen anyone do such a wonderful job of portraying Wotan as a real person as did Bryn Terfel. His obvious anguish at the end of Act II when he cradles the body of his son Siegmund whom he has just killed was heart wrenching. And the tender way he kissed Brünnhilde’s eyes to induce the magic sleep brought tears to my eyes.
I am definitely planning to see the Encore performance on Wednesday, June 1. I’ll be in or near my usual seat (center section, 3rd row from the back, 3rd seat in from the left aisle) at the Cinemark theater in Palo Alto. Where will you be?
The Opera Nut
Photos, except as noted: Ken Howard /Metropolitan Opera