Go inside this production of Die Walküre with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
In the Ring cycle’s prologue, Das Rheingold, Alberich steals the Rhinemaidens’ gold and forges it into a ring giving him supreme power. Wotan, the chief god, captures Alberich and steals the ring, but Alberich places a curse on it until it is restored to its rightful owner. Wotan is forced to give the ring to the giants Fasolt and Fafner as payment for building the gods’ fortress, Valhalla. The curse immediately reveals its power: Fafner kills his brother and keeps the ring himself. The gods enter Valhalla, apparently in triumph. Knowing that without the ring, this triumph is ephemeral, Wotan sires two mortal children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, in the hope of creating an independent hero, unbound by the contracts that limit his freedom of action, who can win back the ring. But he cannot resist participating in their fate, so fatally compromising their independence. As further insurance, he sires nine Valkyries with the earth-goddess Erda, whose task is to recruit fallen heroes to defend Valhalla.
Siegmund seeks shelter in Hunding's home. Sieglinde, Hunding’s wife, looks after him. Siegmund tells Hunding of his boyhood: his mother was killed and his twin sister abducted. His father raised him as a lone warrior, and then vanished. Siegmund reveals that is seeking shelter, having supported a young woman whom kinsmen were forcing into a loveless marriage. After slaying several of her oppressors, he was disarmed, wounded, and put to flight. Hunding declares that the fallen were his own kinsmen, and that he will exact vengeance the following day. The sacred vows of hospitality, however, protect his guest that night. Siegmund recalls his father's promise that he would find a sword in his hour of need. Sieglinde reveals that she has drugged Hunding with a sleeping draft, and shows Siegmund a sword buried to the hilt in the ash tree that grows through Hunding’s house. A stranger, whom Sieglinde recognized as her father, had appeared at her wedding feast and plunged the sword into the tree, promising it would belong to anyone who could withdraw it. So far, everyone has failed this challenge. Suddenly moonlight floods the room. Greeting the spring, Siegmund declares that fate sent him to rescue Sieglinde and claim her as his bride. She recognizes him as her brother, and names him “Siegmund”. He pulls out the sword and names it “Nothung” (“Need”) and the ecstatic twins become lovers.
Scene 1. Brünnhilde, Wotan's favorite Valkyrie daughter, greets her father. He commands her to defend Siegmund in his duel with Hunding. Fricka, goddess of marriage and Wotan’s wife, demands that he cease protecting the incestuous lovers, and that marital propriety must be upheld. Wotan is reluctantly forced to yield: the gods cannot survive if they ignore the sacred laws on which their power rests. When Brünnhilde returns, Wotan explains the long history of the ring. He had intended that Siegmund would recapture the ring, but that is now impossible; Wotan is reduced to awaiting the end of his supremacy, which Erda predicted would follow the birth of Alberich’s son. Wotan bitterly instructs Brünnhilde to ensure Hunding's triumph over Siegmund. When the Valkyrie protests, her father threatens her with severe punishment should she disobey.
Scene 2. Overcome by shame and fear, Sieglinde begs her brother to leave her. Siegmund is confident of victory over Hunding. Sieglinde's terror increases as she has a premonition of Siegmund’s death. Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund as the messenger of death, and tells him that she will escort him to Valhalla. When he learns that Sieglinde cannot accompany him, Siegmund scorns the heroes’ paradise. He prepares to kill Sieglinde and himself, to preserve their union in death. Deeply moved, Brünnhilde promises to aid Siegmund in battle. Siegmund confronts Hunding. Brünnhilde manages to protect him until Wotan appears, shattering Siegmund's sword and enabling Hunding to kill him. Brünnhilde flees with Sieglinde, and the fragments of the sword. Having kept his promise to Fricka, Wotan contemptuously slays Hunding and swears to punish Brünnhilde.
The Valkyries assemble. Brünnhilde begs her sisters to save Sieglinde from Wotan’s wrath. The Valkyries tell her that Wotan does not go near the forest that shelters Fafner, the giant, who has transformed himself into a dragon to guard his treasure. Brünnhilde reveals that the life of Siegmund’s unborn son depends on Sieglinde’s survival. Ecstatic, Sieglinde sets off for the forest alone, taking with her only the shattered fragments of the sword, “Nothung.” The Valkyries flee from Wotan’s wrath. He condemns Brünnhilde to be put to sleep on the Valkyrie rock, defenseless against the first man who claims her as his wife. Brünnhilde explains that she disobeyed only Wotan’s words, not his true desire. She asks to be surrounded by a fire that only a fearless hero can penetrate. Wotan grants her request and, bidding her a heartbroken farewell, he kisses her eyes and lets her sink into a deep sleep. When he calls for Loge, the demigod of fire, a sea of flames encircles the mountain. Declaring that anyone who fears his spear will never step through the fire, Wotan disappears.
The world has now moved on from the schematic, colorful world of Das Rheingold with its bold delineation of the worlds of above, on, and under the earth. The Gods have transformed from a ramshackle band of Nomadic deities into an Imperial Family suitably housed in an awe-inspiring palace, seemingly all powerful but at the same time hemmed in by inherited obligations from the past and the murky compromises of political reality.
The first two acts of Die Walküre therefore follow this narrowing field of possibility by focusing down onto intensely domestic encounters. The first act takes place entirely in Hunding’s house and concerns husband/wife and brother/ sister, but of course, it is still part of an elemental epic in which a tree bearing a magic sword grows through the walls of the house, and Spring bursts into the living room –- not something that happens very often in everyday suburbia. And this “domestic” setting also includes one of the greatest expositions of “Anagnorisis” – the moment of recognition in Aristotelian tragedy – in which brother and sister, Siegmund and Sieglinde, discover each other’s identities. The fact that they then consummate this recognition passionately and sexually is Wagner’s own particular take on the Aristotelian device.
In the second act, partly set inside the “Imperial Palace” (Valhalla), the characters are equally intimately connected: husband/ wife, father/daughter, brother/sister. It is useful to remember that despite the Ring’s epic scale and occasional scenes of spectacle, it is primarily a series of twohanded confrontations. In the ultimate operatic “domestic row” between husband and wife (Wotan and Fricka), we learn that the world is regulated by a strict sense of proprieties. Wotan may rampage around the world creating a tribe of daughters, the Valkyries, but he cannot get away with secretly manipulating human beings to suit his purposes. He is fenced in by convention and social order, which is what gives this work its Ibsenesque quality, highlighting the struggle of the individual to come to terms with the obligations and rules of society. Wagner’s Gods are very much powerful citizens of a social and moral world which we can all recognize, rather than the carefree hedonists of Olympus.
Wagner’s acute sense of human psychology is nowhere better demonstrated than in the relationship between Wotan and his daughter, Brünnhilde, and a large proportion of the five-hour drama is given over to exploring this. Of course she worships her father, and cannot believe that her hero is tied down and compromised by political and historical reality. Like an impetuous and idealistic teenager she takes up the cause of rescuing Siegmund and Sieglinde, believing that in defying her father’s orders she is nonetheless expressing his inner desire. This disobedience merely serves to highlight for Wotan the miserable compromise he has been forced to make, and so, shamed by his daughter’s naïve but principled idealism, he reacts with the wounded fury of a man whose own hypocrisy has been exposed.
The emphasis in Walküre on social relationships and obligations and human psychology suggests to us that this drama is moving forward in time from the world of Das Rheingold, bringing us into an era in which we can all too readily understand and identify with the problems and conflicts that the characters have to solve. Our relationships with our children and our partners may not be on such an epic scale, but they are not materially of a different order to the personal relationships explored here. Walküre moves us into the modern world, albeit still one at a significant remove from our contemporary experience, perhaps abstractly located in the middle of the last century – that is, if we need to define an exact period. And the methodology of our production remains the same, as it will throughout the cycle. We set out with our designs to create a theatrical framework for the stage which continually allows us to revert to its pristine, virginal condition: the empty stage. And on that empty stage we continually recreate the illusion in which you will believe, even though we will continually reveal to you, show you, demonstrate even, how the illusion is created. The story of this second instalment may have become more human, more intimate, more psychological, but it remains a story which we will tell in the spirit of that magical pact between narrator and listener: “Once upon a time….”
David Pountney, Director
It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the second installment of Lyric’s new Ring cycle. Die Walküre continues the exciting journey this company has undertaken with this Ring, which began so auspiciously last season with Das Rheingold. Our production team’s intention to reclaim the Ring for the theater has proven truly illuminating, and I know their insights will continue to enrich our operagoing as the Ring proceeds.
Of course, each of the four Ring operas is musically and dramatically stupendous, but there are certain qualities in Die Walküre that have inspired not simply admiration and awe, but also affection and, yes, love. This opera’s impact goes directly to the heart – it’s that simple. Can there be any moment more ecstatic in opera than Sieglinde’s riveting cry of “Siegmund!” when she recognizes her longlost brother? And is any operatic farewell more touching than Wotan’s final words to his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde?
Our director, David Pountney, whose Ring at Lyric is his first production of the complete cycle, has described Die Walküre as an Ibsen drama. I agree, in that Wagner is drawing us in an intensely concentrated way into the inner workings of family relationships. As so often in Ibsen, we’re provoked and intrigued as much by what is said as by what remains hidden. All the principals are complex figures, who deal with the most profoundly life-changing situations. The miracle of Die Walküre is in the sheer humanity that emerges from Wagner’s music – in each and every phrase, character is revealed with unerring insight.
I’m constantly struck by the sheer beauty, as well as the excitement, of this music, from the ravishing arias of Siegmund and Sieglinde to Brünnhilde’s hairraising battle cry and the exhilarating “Ride of the Valkyries.” And the opera closes with a scene for Wotan and Brünnhilde for which “sublime” is the only word.
No company can present any portion of the Ring without a truly remarkable conductor. I am thus very grateful at the thought that our company’s music director, Sir Andrew Davis, is leading the new Ring. There could hardly be a more glorious way to celebrate Andrew’s thirtieth anniversary at Lyric than with Die Walküre, which will certainly communicate both the majesty and the intimacy that have made his Wagner performances so rewarding.
It’s often said that the world is severely lacking appropriate singers for the Wagner repertoire, but Lyric in recent seasons has proven repeatedly that we can cast these operas thrillingly. I’m especially excited about the principals we’ve assembled for this season’s Die Walküre. Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde), Eric Owens (Wotan), and Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund) have all given superb performances at Lyric that have established all three as audience favorites, and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner made a marvelous debut with us in last season’s Das Rheingold. I’m delighted that we can welcome to the company for the first time two other major Wagnerians from Europe – Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid (Sieglinde) and Estonian bass Ain Anger (Hunding).
I know this production will enthrall you to such a degree that you’ll be eager to return in the next two seasons to continue the Ring journey with us.
General Director, President & CEO
The Women’s Board Endowed Chair
Call it the great exception.
Die Walküre, the second opera of Richard Wagner’s mammoth Ring of the Nibelung cycle long has reigned as the most popular of the tetralogy and ranks among the favorites of the composer’s entire oeuvre. Wagner is challenging to many operagoers, but even those devoted to more compact, more obviously tuneful Italian and French standard-repertoire works often make room for Die Walküre.
Why? Because in Die Walküre, particularly its closing pages, Wagner showcased his better self, and composed music for the ages.
The opera introduces audiences to Brünnhilde, the Ring’s central character and the opera’s namesake. Die Walküre features a rapturous love scene in Act One, one of most famous tunes in all music, “The Ride of the Valkyries,” plus a finale that, when it comes to heartrending beauty and eloquence, has few equals in opera.
And considering that between the end of Das Rheingold and the opening of Walküre the god Wotan has sired at least eleven children (none with his wife, Fricka), there are noticeable biographical elements to the work, particularly Wagner’s less-thanfaithful relationship with his wife.
When Wagner composed Die Walküre between June 1854 and March 1856, his marriage to Minna Planer was disintegrating. Minna often criticized Wagner’s wandering eye, most notably his relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant who was a patron of Wagner’s.
By the time Walküre had its world premiere in Munich on June 26, 1870 – featuring the real-life husband and wife duo of Henrich Vogel and Therese Vogel as Siegmund and Sieglinde – Minna had died. Wagner was about to marry Cosima von Bülow, with whom he already had produced three children. Cosima was the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of maestro Hans von Bülow, who had conducted the world premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger.
But Die Walküre’s appeal extends well beyond memorable music and an interesting back story. It takes patience to mine Walküre’s treasures, musically and dramatically. Much of the opera is foreboding and confrontational. The music, often in minor keys, bespeaks strife, debate and anger. Yet audiences for nearly a century and a half have been more than willing to wait for the opera’s grand payoffs.
Because these are characters we care about, particularly Siegmund, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde. Even Wotan, who came across as a bossy wheeler-dealer for much of Das Rheingold, the opening opera in the cycle, draws our sympathies by time the curtain falls. David Pountney, who is directing the four Ring productions for Lyric Opera of Chicago, sees elements of Ibsen, surely in advocacy of women’s rights and identity, spotlighted in his play A Doll’s House.
Rheingold, despite its fast-moving action and musical glories, doesn’t register on the same personal level as Walküre. Drama and power politics abound but other than Alberich’s grubby pursuit of the Rhinemaidens and the giant Fasolt’s high school-like crush on the goddess Freia, Rheingold provides little space for love or humanity.
Walküre more than fills the gap, starting with the romance between the Volsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde in the opening act. Act One is a gem of a mini-opera. It is the shortest act in the Ring, lasting a bit more than an hour, with only three characters— all who are gone by early in Act Three. Symphony orchestras around the world perform concert versions of Act One, and the 1935 Act One recording with Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund, Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde, and Emmanuel List as Hunding, with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, is considered one of the greatest operatic performances ever put on disc.
Siegmund is the Ring’s man of constant sorrow and his Volsung motif indicates a proud warrior who has had to fight for everything. Once he meets Sieglinde, he senses that his life could be about to change. Yes, there’s that little matter about the two being brother and sister. Most audiences, however, are willing to cut the Volsung kids a bit of slack. Their relationship doesn’t have the “ick” factor of brothersister lovers Jamie and Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones.
Carolyn Abate and Roger Parker, authors of the authoritative A History of Opera, suggest Siegmund and Sieglinde “jolted Wagner to a higher plane in his thinking about motifs in the dark, those intricate musical transformations that depict the twins’ increasing passion.” The authors note the Volsungs’ realization that they are related seems “to ignite them further.”
The act hits overdrive when Siegmund pulls Wotan’s sword Nothung out of the ash tree and the orchestra explodes in triumphal light with the themes of the sword and the Volsungs, culminating one of Wagner’s most rapturous love duets. Too bad Die Walküre doesn’t end with the happy pair escaping into the night. Even an illegal marriage seems preferable for Sieglinde than staying with that boorish bully Hunding.
Act Two, the second longest of the cycle (after Act One of Götterdämmerung), challenges singers and listeners. It returns to the musical and dramatic darkness that pervaded the start of the opera with a different set of relationships. Wotan and his favorite daughter Brünnhilde, who open the act in high spirits, will be in bitter conflict when the curtain closes. Wotan’s ability to control events – even in his own family – is shattered, starting with his wife Fricka, the goddess of the hearth and matrimony.
A strict constructionist when it comes to matrimonial matters, Fricka demands that Wotan disavow the immoral Volsung union. Audiences often view Fricka as a righteous spoilsport, but Valhalla law is on her side. Her music ends with a noble reference to her “rights, sublime and glorious,” showing Fricka, too, is an immortal, and Wotan’s equal.
As Wotan’s plans disintegrate, for the first time in the opera we hear the music of Alberich’s curse – Walküre is the only opera in the cycle where we never physically see the ring. The confident and sometimes arrogant god of Rheingold is losing his mojo. In front of Brünnhilde, Wotan delivers a lengthy narration, described by music critic Alex Ross as “the most spectacular psychological tailspin in the history of opera.” The quiet, contained music accurately portrays Wotan’s utter dejection as he realizes the fates of the ring, the gods and, certainly, the Volsungs are out of his hands.
For the rest of the Ring cycle, this is a humbled god.
Brünnhilde, who comes off as spirited but somewhat one-dimensional through the opening of Act Two, undergoes her own transformation in the “Todesverkündigung,” the announcement of death to Siegmund, who no longer enjoys the Valkyrie’s protection. It is a scene of majesty and foreboding. The music starts at a stately pace with the Valhalla theme, but it increases in tempo and agitation when Siegmund tells Brünnhilde that he will not accompany her to the joys of the afterlife once he learns his “sister-bride” Sieglinde will not be at his side.
Brünnhilde, who has never witnessed such romantic passion and humanity, has a profound change of heart and agrees to fight at Siegmund’s side, culminating a powerful scene that, ultimately, results in Wotan’s favorite daughter forfeiting her rights to be a Valkyrie. But if Brünnhilde has lost Wotan’s support, she has become a more sympathetic – dare we say human – character.
Before getting into the crux of Act Three, a quick word about “The Ride of the Valkyries” that opens the act, perhaps the most famous music Wagner ever composed. It is accessible enough to serve as a ditty for Elmer Fudd as he pursues Bugs Bunny, but it also possesses the martial quality to accompany a battle scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. As Wagner unleashes the full power of his large orchestra, audiences can picture winged horses soaring over mountaintops, ridden by a very different kind of woman.
To mid-19th century sensibilities, the presentation of women as confident and athletic as the brash Valkyries would have been radical. Females didn’t behave this way. Fricka dismisses the brood as “goodfor-nothing wenches.’’ Yet the Valkyries are the predecessors not only of a superhero like Wonder Woman, but the worldclass female athletes who win Olympic and NCAA championships. Perhaps their music has become a bit of a cliché but the Valkyries’ attitude was more than a century ahead of its time.
Wotan is never angrier than when he confronts Brünnhilde in Act Three. She is his favorite daughter, the only Valkyrie to whom he would confide his innermost thoughts, the one he allowed to “serve me mead at my table” and who protects his back in battle. Now she has betrayed him. But because of their special relationship, the humiliated Brünnhilde senses her father still regards her dearly. Once she persuades “warfather” to surround her with flames so that “only a fearless noble hero will find me,” the ultimate glories of Die Walküre are released.
Had Wagner not written another opera, he would be remembered for Wotan’s farewell, music of tremendous emotion that accompanies this most conflicted of fathers who must say goodbye to his beloved daughter. The swelling music leaves the strife behind and begins to incorporate elements of Valhalla, the Valkyries, the sleep motif, the coming of Siegfried in the next opera and, eventually, Loge’s magic fire theme, called by some wags the “heat motif.”
Long gone are the pyrotechnics of the Siegmund-Sieglinde love duet, replaced by music of profound tenderness. Any father who seen a daughter leave home, be it for college, work or marriage, knows the emotion that accompanies such partings.
“On a happier man may your eyes shine,” sings Wotan as music from the strings and horns sends Brünnhilde into a magical sleep. No doubt, Wotan is diminished from the master of the universe he sought to portray at the start of Die Walküre. Yet he is a far nobler character. Through unexpected and tortuous paths, Wotan, now a sympathetic father, has earned our respect and admiration, and his farewell brings a glorious benediction to this most beloved of Ring operas.
Richard Rothschild of Oak Park has written about opera for more than 30 years, including during a 21-year stint at the Chicago Tribune. One of the first operas he attended was Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at the original Metropolitan Opera House in New York.