From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Three)

The Valkyries await their sister Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke, above center) in Act III of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

The Human Element

The second and most popular opera in the four-part Ring cycle is Die Walküre. It’s the most frequently performed outside of the collective works. And why is that? It’s not the longest by any means, clocking in uncut at around three hours and forty-five minutes. The last two opuses, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are lengthier than that (at least, Siegfried “feels” longer). So, what is it about Die Walküre that attracts listeners more than any of the others?

One factor looks to the missing human element in Das Rheingold. None of the participants in that introductory piece are particularly laudable. In fact, the squabbling universe of gods, goddesses, giants, dwarfs, and water nymphs grows tedious with each repetition: deceit, duplicity, backbiting, trickery, theft, brutality, and so forth tend to make the above subjects highly dislikable, if not undeserving of our respect. One looks in vain for a glimpse of humanity among both antagonists and protagonists.

Fortunately (and for the future approbation of his cycle), Wagner was shrewd enough to temporarily leave the world of the immortals and concentrate his next entry on the doomed love affair between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the ever-mounting pressures placed on his other lead characters, Wotan and Brünnhilde.

When last we left Wotan, he had reluctantly given up the Nibelung horde, as well as the all-powerful Ring that was forged from it, to the greedy Fafner. Having stolen the Ring from its original purloiner, Alberich (the titular Nibelung), Wotan had every intention of using the object for his own selfish purpose: to add to his lust for power and exert control over the world. However “noble” his cause, Wotan’s efforts at same were destined to flounder due to Alberich’s all-enveloping curse.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) calls on his daughter Brunnhilde to defend Siegmund – Act II of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Instead, the Ring was turned into a symbol of man’s inability to influence the course of events: all those who sought to possess it would never achieve their aims; and those who did possess it were predestined for an early demise. No sooner had Wotan lost the ill-fated bauble than he plotted to reacquire it. But how to go about that end?

One of several notions that occurred to the one-eyed deity was to conjure up a hero, one who by his own volition could do what Wotan himself was incapable of doing. Another was to give this so-called “free-willed” champion a weapon by which he might accomplish the deed. That weapon would be the sword Notung (or Needful). It would come to his hero’s aid whenever the need was at its greatest. Despite his self-assurances, Wotan’s plans go terribly awry.

Starting things off in Act I, we are immediately introduced to the mortal Siegmund, who comes bursting through the door of Hunding’s hut. Hunding shares kinship to a band of tribesmen who roam the forest pillaging and otherwise creating mayhem. On one such raid, young Siegmund and his papa (I wonder who THAT might be?) had come home to find their residence looted, the mother killed, and the sister abducted or lost. On another foray, Siegmund became separated from dear old dad and forced, by circumstances, to roam the woods on his own. This led to a life on the run.

His “twin sister,” Sieglinde, whom we also come to meet, is married to the brutish Hunding, who’s not really a bad sort but a simple rustic. Brother and sister do not know of each other’s existence, but as Sieglinde retrieves some refreshment for the parched intruder, they cannot take their sights off one another. Perhaps it’s their resemblance that has sparked their interest, or the warm glow in their eyes. Whatever it is, the music tells us what we suspect: they are hopelessly in love.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) eyes Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) as husband Hunding (Gunther Groissbock) listens – Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

These two individuals soon find themselves entangled in the plot by way of their parentage. You see, that unnamed mother gave birth to two siblings; and the father, as we have surmised, was Wotan in human guise. After he came up with the idea of the sword, Wotan left Valhalla and his wife, the goddess Fricka, to roam about the earth on one of many dalliances where the god sought out human (read: female) companionship.

Prior to that encounter, Wotan had found solace in the arms of the goddess Erda. You remember Erda: she was the one who warned him of the gods’ impending doom, should they refuse to relinquish the Ring. Well, not only did Wotan learn a few dark secrets from Earth Mother Erda, he also fathered from her a noisy bunch of female warriors called Valkyries (nine in all), one of whom became Wotan’s favorite daughter, Brünnhilde.

As Siegmund tells his side of the story, Hunding suspects this trespasser of being the one his kinsmen have been looking for as the perpetrator of another assault (darn those pesky raids!). While offering him refuge for the night, Hunding swears vengeance. “Sleep tight, stranger,” he warns, but in the morning “Prepare to defend yourself!” This brings cold comfort to our hapless hero. But his luck changes when Sieglinde strides back in, telling this woebegone fellow that she gave Hunding a powerful sleeping draught — thus allowing both her and Siegmund some “alone” time.

After relating her version of events, the night wind blows open the door of the hut to reveal a springtime sunset. It’s here that Siegmund and Sieglinde discover each other, with Wagner’s heavenly music providing the perfect lyrical backdrop. They realize, after much back and forth, that they are indeed related (and become illicit lovers forthwith — ouch!). Oh, and one more thing: coincidentally, Wotan had earlier in the saga passed by a clearing and shoved a hefty sword into a tree trunk, challenging all comers to pull it out (Excalibur anyone?). Only the strongest of mortal men can draw this sword and make good use of it. And around this specific tree trunk, Hunding had built his home. How convenient is that!?!

With a triumphant shout, Siegmund draws the sword from the tree, repeating the name “Notung” as he does (and inspiring countless Freudian interpretations to boot). We can thank French director Patrice Chéreau for introducing a bit of “spice” into this scene. It was during the 1976 Centenary Ring production at Bayreuth that he instructed his Siegmund and Sieglinde to grab hold of each other and throw themselves lustfully onto the ground for a little “fun and frolic.” From such an impulsive act, an institution was born.

At the Met, the part of Siegmund was taken by Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, whose Tristan and Otello I have previously reviewed. Having fully recovered from the flu, Skelton was in his natural element in Wagner, his baritone-like instrument showing a deep and abiding commitment to making audiences sympathize with his character. He invested the role with a large, powerful Heldentenor that encompassed the full range and weight needed to bring this brooding portrayal off. He also displayed tremendous breath control on the long-held passages called for in this act — especially the repeated cries of “Wälse, Wälse!” His Spring Song was expertly articulated.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) calls out to his father, Waelse, for the sword Notung, in Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

After a nearly disastrous series of appearances in Verdi’s Otello, Skelton bounced back with vigor, favoring listeners with an emotional stream of raw passion not heard in many a Met season. No wonder audiences fell in love with this character! He was ably partnered by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, who turned in a daunting, breathlessly sublime performance. Her extended scenes with brother Siegmund felt convincing and lived in the moment, proving once and for all that Wagner was absolutely on the right track when he wrote this scenario.

Not to be outdone, the talented German basso Günther Groissböck returned to the Ring as a steely voiced yet brutally honest Hunding. He refused to bow to convention by making Hunding the all-purpose villain of the piece. He’s more a victim of circumstance, and the bass conveyed that aspect with his solidly vocalized interpretation of the wronged husband’s dilemma.

Speaking of going against convention, the Met’s management allowed their artists to bow after each act — in this instance, it was more than merited since the performers in question were over and above the already high bar set for them.

Wotan’s Walls Come Tumbling Down

As you may have guessed, the extraordinary state of illicit affairs between Siegmund and his sister did not sit well with Fricka, the four-square goddess of marriage and the hearth. Incest and its portent are frowned upon, even among the faithless gods.

In Act II, after Wotan has charged Brünnhilde with protecting the couple, Fricka challenges her wayward mate to come to terms with his plans. Wotan tries every which way to justify the actions of his earthly offspring, to little avail. Nevertheless, his futile attempts to convince Fricka to allow their relationship to blossom falls on deaf ears. She refuses to buy any of his arguments. Besides, Hunding has called upon her to preserve the sanctity of marriage. And Fricka, as the titular guardian of that institution, has to respect his wishes. Ergo, Wotan must bend to her will.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) tries to justify his actions to his wife Fricka (Jamie Barton) in Act II of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

At first, the macho god refuses. He puts up pitifully self-deluding excuses for their coupling. Trying to defend the indefensible, Wotan stumbles badly. In claiming that Siegmund is acting of his own free will, Fricka tears apart Wotan’s explanations. Indeed, the walls of Valhalla begin to crumble before him: how dare he provide the means by which Siegmund could triumph over Hunding, when he knows full well it was Wotan’s doing all along. He is the one who fathered his children; he is the one who planted the sword; and he is the one who deliberately influenced events in his favor. There was no “free will” at all, only Wotan’s will.

Wotan realizes, of course, that she is right. What does Fricka ask of him? The ultimate sacrifice, she replies: take Notung’s power away from Siegmund. When Hunding comes to do battle, do not give Siegmund aid. Even more disturbing to Wotan, he must prevent Brünnhilde from interfering in the outcome. Otherwise, whatever authority the god has over mortals will be neutralized. Siegmund must fall! After a brief exchange with the Valkyrie, Fricka withdraws.

A dark cloud descends upon War Father, the name the Valkyries call him. In utter despair, Wotan cries out that he is the lowest of creatures. He must comply with his wife’s demands, or else face the consequences. Brünnhilde is aghast at War Father’s situation, but has little grasp of the dire straits he has placed himself in. However, she convinces Wotan to unburden his mind to her: by reasoning with the god, the Valkyrie enables him to discourse at length about the path he’s been on and where that path might take him. Call it “armchair analysis” at its best, but this is one of the most gripping dialogues in the entire Ring saga.

A lengthy narrative takes shape, wherein Wotan relives past occurrences as well as looks forward to a bleak future. Events yet to come were foretold long ago, many by Erda herself. One such prophecy references Alberich, who has bribed a woman to give birth to an evil offspring. Wotan mockingly toasts this child of hate (with Hagen’s sinister theme sounding in the orchestra). We, the listeners, can only marvel at how psychologically astute and perceptive Wagner was in conceiving this self-revelatory sequence. The one thing Wotan longs for, “Das Ende!” (“The end”), is all he has left. Woe to Brünnhilde, or anyone else, who dares to disobey him. With that final, pained outburst, he departs. What’s a daughter to do?

Wotan (Grimsley) berates Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) for disobeying his orders

Mezzo Jamie Barton repeated her earnest and strongly felt Fricka, the custodian of the conjugal order and stern advocate for maintaining the status quo. There are many parallels with Wagner’s real-life situation as a married man having an open affair with a married woman (and with the husband’s full knowledge and tacit consent!). Still, it’s a shame Wagner did not give this character more to sing and do. Barton embodied the goddess’ decisiveness and regal bearing as if to the manner born.

Too, veteran bass-baritone Greer Grimsley’s world-weary Wotan was heard to better effect here than in Das Rheingold. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to hear a singer so closely matched in ability and timbre, and in temperament, as he was to the beleaguered god. But at this point in Grimsley’s career, the high notes don’t come as easy and focused or as solidly produced as they might have in earlier days.

Regardless, his portrayal lacked for nothing: the authority, the thrust, the anger, the command of language (his German was crisply articulated and flung full force into the auditorium), all combined to give weighty substance to the impotent god. Grimsley’s physical appearance may have been less happy, i.e., a certain casualness in holding his spear and a persistent distracted quality. But these were minor quibbles, to be honest, and, for radio listeners such as myself, beside the point. This was first-rate work all the way.

One-Way Ride to Valhalla

Wotan has lost his grip on a situation of his own making. Caught in his own web and done in by circuitous logic, he is incapable of action. And powerless to change the outcome. This god of gods rails against the flowing tide of destiny. If Alberich, his antagonist, can have his way with a woman by plying her with gold and conceiving a child of hate, what of the loving Wotan? The god fathered the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde out of love. Why must he step aside and watch his beloved couple fall into the abyss?

His desperation is keenly felt by Brünnhilde, boldly sung and acted by American soprano Christine Goerke in her role debut at the Met. She bore the burdens of Wotan’s daughter with sincerity and warmth. Despite a voice of tremendous thrust and staying power (her assumption of Strauss’ Elektra at the company was a major triumph), Goerke left this listener puzzled as to the opaqueness of her diction and the obliqueness of her characterization. Notwithstanding the above caveat, her Valkyrie maiden made one feel the emotion of the moment as she moved to save Siegmund’s life, thus changing her own fate.

The character’s blossoming humanity whereby she deliberately goes against her father’s wishes, along with that of defending the ill-fated Siegmund, were fully brought out in the marvelous Todesverkündigen (“Annunciation of Death”) sequence with Skelton. The act ends quickly and decisively with Wotan’s last-minute appearance and shattering of Siegmund’s sword. Hunding kills Siegmund with one thrust of his spear, as the dying son is cradled in his father’s arms.

Siegmund (Skelton) guards his beloved Sieglinde (Westbroek) as Brunnhilde (Goerke) looks on – the “Annunciation of Death” from Act III of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Meanwhile, Brünnhilde whisks away both Sieglinde and the shattered pieces of Notung before War Father’s angry wrath takes hold. Terrible and swift is the god’s justice: with a wave of his hand, Wotan strikes Hunding down and sends his limp form back to Fricka with his “blessing.” He takes off in furious pursuit of his disobedient child.

Act III begins with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” theme music, voiced by eight of Wotan’s daughters with Erda. They’re a wild bunch, these rollicking war children. All of the artists involved contributed to a fine ensemble as they rode their planks (the 45-ton monstrosity dubbed “The Machine”) in hobby-horse fashion. It’s silly, I know, but what can one do with the staging? Can producers be TOO literal in their interpretation of Wagner’s demands, or must they resort to ingenuity (as inane as it is)? A difficult call, no matter which side you fall on.

Kudos to the Valkyrie sisterhood, though, which featured an ensemble headed by sopranos Kelly Cae Hogan, Jessica Faselt, and Wendy Bryn Harmer, along with mezzos Renée Tatum, Daryl Freedman, Eve Gigliotti, Maya Lahyani, and Mary Phillips. Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan led the Met Opera Orchestra in a deliberately paced but tightly wound interpolation of the score, with many a sonorous take on Wagner’s melodies. There was no drag in any of the episodes, and the brass was much smoother in this production than in Das Rheingold.

The spent Sieglinde is brought before the sisters, who are aghast at Brünnhilde’s boldness. Sieglinde herself is resigned to a quick death, but the Valkyrie insists she must live. For within her womb, a hero will be born: Siegfried the bold. Rejoicing at this news, the ecstatic Sieglinde hails Brünnhilde as the bravest of maids. She rushes off into the forest, in time to avoid War Father’s judgment.

Facing her father’s wrath (the other Valkyries flee before Wotan’s anger), the lone warrior daughter tries to make amends and explain her actions. Wotan, who happens to be a manic-depressive type (especially in Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” cycle at Bayreuth), will have none of it. She deliberately disobeyed him, and must be punished for her act. He plans to take away her godhead, leaving her exposed to whatever mortal happens to pass by. A quick thinker, Brünnhilde begs her father to at least provide a protective ring of fire around her. Only the bravest and most stout-hearted of beings could penetrate the flames.

With his defenses down, the broken-hearted War Father relents. Wotan sadly sends his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, now bereft of her godhead, off to slumber land. The Sleeping Beauty will patiently await her Prince Charming — uh, more like an undisciplined teenager in the form of the boisterous man-child Siegfried — who will awaken her with a kiss. Wagner’s fairy tale could not have ended any other way but with a cliffhanger of a close in the memorable Magic Fire Music:

Brunnhilde lies asleep on Valkyrie rock as Wotan takes his leave to the strains of Magic Fire Music that ends ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

“He who fears my spear’s sharp point shall never pass through the flames.”

Famous last words….

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes      

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s