The Valkyrie (Die Walküre) synopsis
Music by Richard Wagner
Libretto by the composer
First performed: 1870
Since the end of The Rhinegold, the giant Fafner has transformed himself into a dragon by using the magic helmet, and is guarding the hoard of gold and the ring in a cave deep in the forest.
Wotan, anxious to learn more about the fate of the gods, has wooed the earth-goddess Erda, who has borne him a daughter – Brünnhilde. She and her eight ‘sisters’ have been brought up as Valkyries, warrior-maidens who scour the world’s battlefields for dead heroes to bring back to Valhalla to protect the gods’ new home.
Wotan, aware that he must create a free agent, a mortal hero who can get the ring back on his own, has also fathered a twin brother and sister (Siegmund and Sieglinde) by a mortal woman. While Wotan (using the name ‘Wolf’) and his son were out hunting, Sieglinde was abducted. ‘Wolf’ subsequently abandoned Siegmund in the belief that an upbringing free of his protection would allow the boy to develop an independent character and become the hero capable of obtaining the ring – and possibly returning it to the gods.
A room inside Hunding’s house, which is dominated by the trunk of a mighty ash tree
An orchestral prelude evokes a thunderstorm at its height. Exhausted, wounded and without any weapons, a man (as yet unnamed, but in fact Siegmund) drags himself inside Hunding’s forest dwelling and collapses by the fire. Sieglinde, Hunding’s wife, revives him with water and then mead. Siegmund and Sieglinde feel a strong mutual attraction but fail to recognize each other. When Siegmund decides to leave, claiming that he is dogged by misfortune wherever he goes, Sieglinde asks him to stay, declaring that he cannot bring further sadness where it already exists.
Hunding returns. He is struck by Siegmund’s physical similarity to Sieglinde, and asks the stranger who he is. At first Siegmund is evasive, suggesting that he was driven by storms and direst need. When asked for his name, Siegmund replies that he should be called ‘Woeful’, recalling how one day he returned from a hunting expedition with his father to find their home razed to the ground, his mother murdered and his twin sister abducted. Subsequently, he lost contact with his father. At Sieglinde’s prompting, he recounts how he went to the aid of a young woman, whose family insisted she marry against her will. After a terrible battle in which her kinsmen, her brothers and the woman herself were all killed, Siegmund only just managed to escape with his life. Hearing this story, Hunding realizes that the men attacked by Siegmund were his own kinsmen and that Siegmund is therefore his mortal enemy. But under the laws of hospitality he must offer Siegmund shelter for the night; however, with the arrival of dawn Hunding will be able to challenge Siegmund to fight. Sieglinde drugs Hunding’s drink before he retires for the night.
Alone, Siegmund recalls that his father had promised him a sword which he would find in the hour of his greatest need. Sieglinde returns, and tells Siegmund of her loveless marriage and reveals the history of the sword which is embedded in the trunk of the ash tree: at her wedding to Hunding, a stranger (actually Wotan – her father – though disguised as an elderly Wanderer) thrust the sword into the tree, and nobody has since been able to dislodge it. Suddenly, the door swings open to reveal a perfect spring night with full moon. Realizing that their feelings for each other run dangerously deep for a brother and sister, Siegmund releases the sword, which he names Nothung, from the tree. An ecstatic orchestral postlude celebrates their incestuous union.
A wild and rocky ridge in the mountains
A brief orchestral prelude describes both the flight of Siegmund and Sieglinde from Hunding’s house, and the Valkyries’ task. Wotan and Brünnhilde appear, dressed for battle. He orders Brünnhilde, his favourite, to protect Siegmund in the forthcoming fight with Hunding. Fricka, Wotan’s wife and guardian of the sanctity of marriage, enters. Enraged by the harm caused to Hunding by the incestuous relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde, she reproaches her husband for his infidelity in fathering the twins and demands Siegmund’s death. Wotan reluctantly agrees to withdraw his protection: neither he nor Brünnhilde will help Siegmund in his confrontation with Hunding.
Alone with Brünnhilde, Wotan expresses his anger and shame. In a long narration, he discloses his now thwarted plans for creating a special hero, one who could act as a free agent, and for the survival of the gods. But all he can now do is await his own end. In the battle, Brünnhilde must now protect not Siegmund but Hunding; when the Valkyrie protests and tries to change his mind, Wotan warns her that to disobey his command will result in appalling punishment.
Siegmund and Sieglinde enter, exhausted by their flight from Hunding. Tormented by guilt, Sieglinde begs Siegmund to give her up; but he will have none of it: he intends to avenge the injustice done to her by killing Hunding. Delirious, she has a premonition of Siegmund’s death before collapsing in his arms.
Brünnhilde announces to Siegmund that he must die and follow her to Valhalla, leaving Sieglinde behind. He is defiant: he would rather kill Sieglinde and then himself than be separated from her. Brünnhilde tells him that Sieglinde must live: she is carrying his child. Moved by Siegmund’s obvious distress and love for Sieglinde, Brünnhilde resolves to disobey Wotan and save Siegmund in his fight with Hunding.
Siegmund and Hunding meet. Despite Brünnhilde’s attempts to shield Siegmund, his sword is shattered by Wotan and Hunding is therefore able to strike a fatal blow to his defenceless adversary. Brünnhilde gathers up the shattered sword and escapes with Sieglinde. Wotan, full of remorse at the death of his son, strikes Hunding dead, before setting out in pursuit of the disobedient Valkyrie.
On a mountain top
An orchestral prelude (‘The Ride of the Valkyries’) depicts the arrival of the Valkyries, each with the body of a slain warrior slung over the saddle of her winged horse. Brünnhilde is the last to arrive, not with a dead hero but with Sieglinde. She asks her sisters for help, but they refuse: none of them is prepared to incur Wotan’s wrath. Sieglinde reproaches Brünnhilde for not leaving her to die with Siegmund, but the Valkyrie tells her that she will give birth to Siegfried, Siegmund’s son. Entrusting her with the shattered pieces of Siegmund’s sword, Brünnhilde urges Sieglinde to escape to the forest.
Wotan enters in a towering rage. The other Valkyries instinctively shield Brünnhilde, but she knows that escape is impossible and that she must face her punishment. Wotan decrees that Brünnhilde will lose her status as a Valkyrie and become mortal instead; she is to be banished forever from his sight and will be condemned to lie sleeping on the mountain top, only to be awakened by the first person to discover her and kiss her. Silencing the protests of the other Valkyries, Wotan dismisses them and forbids them from ever approaching Brünnhilde again.
Alone with Wotan, Brünnhilde tries to convince her father that in helping Siegmund she had been acting in her father’s own interests. Now that his anger has abated, will he not revoke his decree? But Wotan does not agree, and remains immovable. Brünnhilde pleads that if she must lie asleep on the mountain top, prey to the first man who finds her, then Wotan must at least encircle her with a ring of fire that will deter all but the bravest. The god agrees. After laying her down on a rock, kisses her eyes closed and covering her with her Valkyrie shield, he summons Loge, the god of fire, to surround her with a wall of flame. Wotan walks sadly away.
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