Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
Opera Number Two of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (a.k.a. the Ring Cycle)
First performance: Königliches Hof und National Theater, Munich, 26 June 1870
First performance as part of the completed Der Ring des Nibelungen: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 14 August 1876
Previously in the Ring Cycle...
Alberich, king of a race of dwarves known as the Nibelungs, stole the all-powerful Rhinegold and forged a Ring from it. Wotan and the other gods then captured Alberich and made him give up both his magic helmet (the Tarnhelm) as well as the Ring. Alberich put a curse on the Ring - the person who has the Ring will become obsessed with protecting it, while everyone else will be consumed by envy. In order to avoid the Ring's curse, Wotan had to give up the Ring to Fafner, a giant.
In the meantime...
Several years have passed since the events of Das Rheingold, and Wotan has been busy. He's been off philandering, and has plenty to show for it. Erda, the mysterious goddess who appeared at the end of Das Rheingold to warn of the downfall of the gods, has borne Wotan nine daughters. These daughters are the Valkyries, warrior women who choose which men will die in battle, and then take the brave men's souls to Valhalla. Wotan has also fathered twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, by a mortal woman.
The giant Fafner, now in possession of both the Ring and the Tarnhelm, has used the Tarnhelm's magic to transform himself into a dragon so that he can guard the Ring.
Wotan still wants the Ring and Tarnhelm that he gave away at the end of Das Rheingold, but he knows that if he gets them through deceit or theft, the Ring's curse will kick in. Wotan sees his son Siegmund as a way to get the Ring using honest means. Siegmund and Sieglinde spent their early years in the forest being raised by Wälse, who was actually Wotan in disguise. However, the Neidings ransacked their home, taking Sieglinde as a bride for Hunding. Many years have now passed since Sieglinde was taken away from her twin brother.
Whos' Who: Characters and voice parts
Wotan, Ruler of the Gods (baritone)
Fricka, Goddess of Love, wife of Wotan (mezzo-soprano)
Volsungs (Wotan's mortal children)
Sieglinde, Siegmund's twin sister (soprano)
Neidings (Enemies of the Volsungs)
Hunding, Sieglinde's husband (bass)
Valkyries (Warrior daughters of Wotan and Erda)
The orchestra opens the opera with a tempestuous prelude. On stage, a storm rages, and Our Hero Siegmund finds himself in the wilderness being chased by enemies. He comes to a strange house and goes inside to rest. After he falls asleep in front of the hearth, Sieglinde finds him. Sieglinde brings Siegmund some water and mead, and tells him he can stay there until her husband returns. Neither of them recognizes the other, and there is some serious attraction in the air. Siegmund tells Sieglinde that he should go, before his constant bad luck catches up with him. She replies that bad luck lives in her house, so Siegmund couldn't make it any worse. Suddenly, Sieglinde hears Hunding outside, as the orchestra sounds Hunding's horn motif. Hunding enters, surprised to find his wife by the hearth with a stranger. Siegmund tells Hunding about his sad life, and then learns that Hunding is a Neiding, an enemy of the Volsungs. Hunding tells Siegmund that he will need to defend himself the next morning, and he and Sieglinde retire.
Siegmund prays to his father, Wälse, and asks for the sword that he has been promised. Sieglinde then returns – she has given Hunding a sleeping potion, so now she and the stranger can talk openly. Sieglinde tells Siegmund about her forced wedding to Hunding, during which a strange man (Wälse in disguise) stuck his sword into a tree outside. Sieglinde says that she is unhappy as Hunding's wife, and Siegmund promises to free her from Hunding. He then reveals that his father's name is Wälse, and Sieglinde realizes that he is her long-lost brother. They both go outside, where Siegmund pulls his father's sword from the tree, claiming Sieglinde as his bride. As the act closes, the brother and sister now embrace as husband and wife, while the the Sword motif and the Love motif intertwine in the orchestra.
Wotan, the ruler of the gods, sends his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to defend Siegmund in his fight against Hunding. As Brünnhilde leaves, Fricka (goddess of marriage and Wotan's wife) arrives, adamant that Wotan defend Hunding's marriage rights. Wotan suggests that Siegmund could regain the Rhinegold for the gods if he were allowed to win the duel with Hunding, but then realizes that not enforcing the laws of marriage would cause the Rhinegold's power to turn against him. Brünnhilde returns, and Wotan tells her about the Rhinegold and Alberich's curse, finally ordering her to defend Hunding instead.
Meanwhile, Sieglinde is troubled about the coming fight, and feels that she isn't worthy of Siegmund. Siegmund reassures his sister/wife, and watches over her as she falls asleep. Brünnhilde then appears to him, and tells him that if he fights, he will die and end up in Valhalla. Siegmund refuses to leave Sieglinde, saying that he would rather kill himself and Sieglinde right then and there then fall to Hunding. Brünnhilde, moved by his love for Sieglinde, decides to fight for Siegmund despite Wotan's orders.
The next morning, Hunding approaches for the challenge, accompanied by his menacing horn motif in the orchestra. The two men fight, and as Siegmund is about to triumph over Hunding, Wotan appears and breaks his sword. Hunding then kills Siegmund, but Brünnhilde takes Sieglinde and the remnants of Siegmund's sword and heads back to the home of the Valkyries. Wotan kills Hunding with a wave of his hand, and sets off to punish Brünnhilde.
Act III opens with the Walkürenritt (The Ride of the Valkyries), which is easily one of the most widely recognized passages in opera. The Valkyries have gathered, some accompanied by the souls of fallen warriors. Brünnhilde then enters, but instead of a fallen hero, she brings Sieglinde with her. Brünnhilde tells her sisters that she is seeking refuge from Wotan, but the other Valkyries are afraid of Wotan and are reluctant to help. Sieglinde is distraught, but Brünnhilde manages to give her some good news: she is pregnant with Siegmund's child. With a renewed determination to protect herself and her unborn child, Sieglinde hurries to the forest to hide near Fafner's cave, where she will be safe from Wotan. Wotan arrives with his punishment for Brünnhilde: she will become a mortal woman. She pleads with him, saying that she had only done what he wanted her to do in his heart. Wotan stands firm, and tells her that she will remain asleep and vulnerable, a prize for the first man who finds her. Brünnhilde asks Wotan to surround her in a ring of fire, so that only the bravest of heroes will be able to claim her. Wotan and Brünnhilde both have a feeling that this hero will be Sieglinde and Siegmund's child. Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep and makes her mortal, and then calls on Loge to surround Brünnhilde with fire. As he leaves, Wotan declares that the rock where Brünnhilde lies will be forbidden to anyone who is afraid of his spear.
Previous: Das Rheingold
Up next: Siegfried
The first opera of the Ring tetralogy, Das Rheingold, revolved around power, as the characters fought over the Ring's ultimate power. Die Walküre changes the focus a bit; instead of dealing with what the power of the Ring does to the characters, Die Walküre deals with what the power of love does to them. The central relationship here is the incestuous union of Siegmund and his twin sister Sieglinde. The depth of this love is what causes Brünnhilde to defy Wotan, who in turn is forced to try to put aside his fatherly love for Brünnhilde in order to punish her. Love will continue to be a central element in the next two operas.
Musical highlights of Die Walküre include Brünnhilde's Todesverkundigung (Announcement of Death) to Siegmund in Act II, and of course, the Ride of the Valkyries, popularized by everything from movies to television commercials to Elmer Fudd's "Kill the wabbit!" refrain in "What's Opera, Doc?".
The mythological elements of the Ring Cycle are based on Norse mythology, the names being changed to their German equivalents. The events of the Ring Cycle are a slightly Wagner-ized version of what leads up to Ragnarok, and most of what happens can be found in some form in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Nibelungenlied.
Parallel characters in Norse Mythology:*
Wotan = Odin or Woden
Fricka = Frigga or Frigg
Siegmund = Sigmund
Sieglinde = Signy
Hunding = Siggeir
Brünnhilde = Brynhild
*For more about Norse mythology, see Norse mythology; for the specifics about the Ring Cycle's use of myth, check out Mythological origins of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.