Gods and Nibelungs on the Pacific Coast: the Three Ring “Walküre”

This post is the second in a four part series on West Coast performances of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”, scheduled for Seattle in August 2009, Los Angeles in May and June 2010, and San Francisco in June 2011. (For the earlier article, see:  Gods and Nibelungs on the Pacific Coast: the Three Ring “Rheingolds”.)

The first post discussed the respective “Rheingold” productions that begin the four opera “Ring of the Nibelungs” cycles. This post continues that discussion, but concentrates on the respective productions of the second opera in the Ring cycle, “Die Walküre”.

As mentioned in the first post of this series, mounting the “Ring” is a daunting task for opera companies, requiring large orchestras, casts skilled in the Wagnerian style of singing, and complex staging.  Because these are difficult times economically, producing the “Ring” requires especially heroic efforts. I have no doubt that the pressures of producing the Ring has caused sleepless nights for more than one opera administrator.

But it is not just the companies and the artists whose lives for a period of time are given over to the “Ring”. It also is a major commitment for each member of the audience. Each of the Pacific Rings (nine in all, three to be held in each city) is expected to take place over six day periods.

Attending a “Ring Cycle” itself requires effort beyond the act of purchasing tickets. Even if one lives within walking distance of one of the three opera houses presenting these Rings, most opera goers must organize their time for the six day regimen.

For a “Ring cycle” to take place within a week, the “Rheingold” and “Walküre” occur on successive evenings. There is a break of one day and then “Siegfried” and the break of another day  and the “Ring” ends with “Goetterdaemmerung”.

Why attend a Ring, rather than individual Ring operas?

Persons attending “Ring cycle” from some distance away thus have the logistics of travel and probably accommodations also to add to the complexity of arranging these six days of one’s life. Because of this many opera goers who are admirers of Wagner’s music dramas are tempted to schedule individual “Ring” operas in whichever way best meets their schedule, even if the result is much longer intervals between operas or even attending the “Ring” with parts missing or the order of the operas jumbled.

In my own experience, I have done it both ways – classical six day “Rings” and jumbled “Rings”. However, for those who wish to experience one of the supreme achievements in the performing arts, and I highly recommend that those who appreciate the synthesis of music and drama seek the experience, don’t pass up a six day “Ring” if there is any feasible way for you to attend it.

The Story Arcs of “Walküre”

In the discussion of “Rheingold” I mentioned the great story arcs that encompass the “Ring”. One of these motivates the first act of “Walküre”. Wotan is entangled by the compacts and contracts written on his spear and must be seen as abiding by the laws derived from them, yet he wants to gain the power of the Ring of the Nibelungs that now is owned by Fafner (who will appear again in the opera that comes next).

Therefore, Wotan works on an elaborate scheme, taking a couple of decades of planning to set everything in place, creating agents to do his will, while retaining “plausible deniability” in the parlance of modern government “special operations”.

Although “Die Walküre’s” Act I is sometimes described as a diversion from or backstory to the main story-line, I regard it as a key plot development, advancing the story arc of Wotan’s strategy for becoming the master of the universe.

It is the grand design of Wotan, who, upon understanding the power of Alberich’s Ring (although not at first the full power of Alberich’s curse upon those who try to possess it), develops an elaborate strategy to take possession of it.

This grand design suddenly takes on a defensive urgency when Wotan learns that Alberich himself has paid a woman to conceive his child, to be an agent of Alberich’s countervailing strategy for regaining the Ring. In the Seattle and San Francisco Rings, we will first meet Alberich’s son, Hagen, in the final opera, “Goetterdaemmerung”.

In the Los Angeles Ring, a floozy, whom we know is Alberich’s mate, appears in what I call the “Rheingold” parade of avatars – a group of dwarf-like characters who from time to time walk single file around the disk that is such a prominent feature of the L. A. Ring. By the time of the “Walküre” parade of avatars, the floozy is joined in the parade by a baby carriage in which Baby Hagen rides. For the review of this second opera in the Los Angeles Opera “Ring”, see: Sonic Splendor: Domingo, Conlon Lead Impressively Sung, Engaging “Walküre” for L. A. Opera – April 12, 2009.)

To advance his design, Wotan has fathered a twin boy and girl (perhaps in the 21st century we would consider them “sleepers”) and has contrived for them to be separated as infants and then reunited as adults, seemingly by chance. As Wotan’s scheme evolved, the girl twin was captured by Hunding and his kinsmen and made Hunding’s wife.

In the Seattle “Ring”, Hunding’s house is a wooden structure that one might associate with barbarian households in the centuries between the Fall of Rome and Medieval Times.

In the “American Ring” that is to be shown in San Francisco, it is first seen as the facade of what I characterize as a small but cozy  Appalachian dwelling, obviously owned by a hunter . (For a review of the “American Ring Die Walküre” when it was first presented in Washington, DC, see: Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘’Walküre ” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007.)

A stranger appears at the girl’s doorstep when her husband Hunding is away. The girl finds herself sexually attracted to the stranger, who she will come to know is her twin.

[Below: A stranger has arrived at the house of Hunding (as conceptualized in the Seattle Ring), and discovers that Hunding’s wife is the stranger’s twin sister; edited image, based on a Chris Bennion photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

The girl tells her twin (and the audience) about her forced marriage to Hunding. She also tells him that a mysterious man had shown up at her  wedding and stuck a sword into a tree, which no man to date has been able to extract. But her twin had long ago been told by his father, that in an hour of need he would find a sword.

[Below: a man (here played by Placido Domingo in the “American Ring”) and woman (here played by Anja Kampe) come to understand that they are twins, and that the sword in the tree is that the man was promised to find in a time of great need; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph for the Washington National Opera.]

The first act in the Los Angeles “Ring” utilizes a concept borrowed from science fiction in which the man and woman are each half of a whole, so that their bilateral symmetry is half flesh-colored (although a bluish flesh) and half blackened – each twin’s pattern the opposite of the others.

When the male twin takes possession of the sword, the twins name themselves Siegmund and Sieglinde, and escape from Hunding’s house. This adds to the stakes in any upcoming fight between the husband and his wife’s twin brother.

[Below: The male twin (here, Richard Berkeley-Steele) now possessing the sword Nothung, the twins name themselves Siegmund and Sieglinde (here, Margaret Jane Wray); edited image, based on a Chris Bennion photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

In the interim between the acts, the twins make love and conceive a child who is to be Siegfried. They reappear in the middle of Act II, pursued by Hunding and his men, although Siegmund, knowing that he possesses the sword Nothung, expects to  be successful in any fight. Sieglinde faints from exhaustion, protected by Siegmund.

[Below: Siegmund (here, Placido Domingo), with his sword Nothung, guards Sieglinde (here, Anja Kampe), who has fainted; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph for Washington National Opera.]

[Below: Siegmund (again, Placido Domingo), holding Nothung, and guarding Sieglinde (again, Anje Kampe, who has fainted); edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

So far, the Siegmund-Sieglinde-Hunding story arc has moved in a linear plane. From all our experience in “action adventure” stories we would expect that after a harrowing fight, Siegmund would defeat  his enemy, take Sieglinde for his own,  and restore order.

What Siegmund did NOT expect was a Todesverkuendig, which shifts his story arc into quite a different plane. (I checked my principles of spherical geometry. The metaphor is still intact.)

Act II begins with a stress-free Wotan explaining his strategic vision and explaining the reasons that led him to devise it to his daughter, the Valkyr Bruennhilde.

In the Seattle Ring, Valhalla is in a rough-hewn barbarian universe. In San Francisco’s American Ring, it appears to be in the penthouse of a skyscraper, and Bruennhilde (as will other valkyrs) carries square portraits of heroes that she has or will gather from the battlefields – that appear to be in the deserts of the contemporary Middle East.

As soon as Wotan has offered his world-view to Bruennhilde and the audience, things begin to go very wrong for him and his plans.  His wife Fricka asks to speak to him alone. After that conversation, Wotan instructs Bruennhilde – whose role as a valkyr is to appear before heroes who are to lose their life (the Todesverkuendig) and let them know they are to come with her to Valhalla – to let Siegmund know he must die in the battle with Hunding.

To understand why Siegmund was deprived of his promised victory and received a Todesverkeundig instead, one must jump to another storyline, which was introduced in the second scene of “Rheingold” – the battle between Wotan and his wife, Fricka.

What Fricka Wants

Between Acts I and II, something else happens besides Sieglinde’s impregnation by Siegmund with the future Siegfried. The other event turns out to be one of the momentous events in the history of the universe. Sieglinde’s husband Hunding, prior to rounding up his men to pursue the twins, takes the time to appeal for retribution to the goddess of marriage –  Wotan’s wife, Fricka.

As in all power struggles, it often is very important how one phrases one’s grievances, and which battles one chooses to fight. Fricka is quite aware of Wotan’s secret plans and has noted that virtually all of the persons whom Wotan has chosen (actually, created) to carry out those plans are his illegitimate children, born out of his wedlock to Fricka. These illegitmate offspring are the Valkyrs – Bruennhilde and her eight sisters – and also the twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde.

Fricka thus has personal grievances, but she chooses to fight her battle with Wotan on a legal principle: even if one concedes that Hunding had married Sieglinde against her will, Sieglinde’s extra-marital infidelity was with her brother. But Wotan as the enforcer of the laws against incest could not permit the outlaw in such a situation to kill an aggrieved husband. But that is what would happen if Siegmund killed Hunding. Since Wotan both created the situation and placed the sword Nothung at Siegmund’s disposition, it was Wotan who ultimately was conspiring to violate the laws he was required to enforce.

Then Fricka hit Wotan with the coup de grace. He had not only to agree to withdraw his protection from Siegmund, but must also instruct Bruennhilde not to intervene.  When Wotan protested that Bruennhilde could choose whatever she wished to do,  Fricka destroyed Wotan’s carefully wrought plans by noting that all of these plans were extra-legal and he could not divorce himself from them, because none of these illegitimate children who were to be his agents had free will. Wotan’s hands were dirty everywhere.

[Below: Fricka (here, Stephanie Blythe) presents her non-negotiable demands to Wotan (here, Greer Grimsley); edited image, based on a Chris Bennion photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera. ]

From this point on, nothing goes as planned, not even Wotan’s makeshift plans made after Fricka’s ultimatum. Bruennhilde, as required by Wotan, appears before Siegmund to let him know he will die and accompany her to Valhalla. But when Siegmund learns that Sieglinde cannot join him (one can imagine what Fricka’s reaction would be to that!), Siegmund refuses a hero’s immortality to stay with his sister. This so impresses Bruennhilde that she decides to summon up her own free will, violate Wotan’s orders and protect Siegmund in the battle with Hunding.

[Below: Bruennhilde (here, Linda Watson) attempts to protect Siegmund (here, Placido Domingo) in his battle with Hunding; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]

Bruennhilde’s disobedient act of free will has immediate consequences. From afar, Wotan shatters Nothung, Hunding kills the now defenseless Siegmund, and Wotan stops to mourn the loss of his son and then kill Hunding, before, furious, he goes after the daughter who defied his will.

But Bruennhilde has the wits to gather up Sieglinde and the shards of Nothung (the dead hero’s sister and sword-pieces assuring sufficient storylines to add two more operas to the “Ring”) and rides off to find her Valkyr sisters.

Extra Terrestrials on the Battlefield

The one part of the Ring that is arguably extraneous is not only its most famous part, but is more recognizable than any Wagnerian melody other than the Wedding March from “Lohengrin” (although, with the exception for those persons who believe the Valkyrie Ride was composed for Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now”, more people likely associate the Ride with an opera than they do “Here Comes the Bride”).

The Ride of the Valkyries is an extraordinary feat to cast, since it requires eight female soloists, whose voices need to prevail over an orchestra playing at full volume, but who appear only in the first section of Act III. Thus, a production of “Walküre” requires 14 Wagnerian voices. There is not even an opportunity for double casting any of them, since two of the other three women in the cast (Bruennhilde and Sieglinde) appear in the scene with the Valkyries. (It’s unlikely that many managements, once they are committed to the costs of mounting the opera in the first place, would dare to ask their Fricka, as a cost-saving measure, to take up a Valkyrie spear in the final act.)

For decades, “Walküre” productions dress Bruennhilde and the valkyries as warrior maidens, those in Seattle in chain mail and shields, reminding one of the mid- 20th century film depictions of Joan of Arc.

[Below: the Seattle Opera Valkyrs; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

However, for the past three decades or so, production and costume designers have let their imaginations run, and these extra-terrestrials, who were created to scoop up fallen heroes from battlefields, now are conceptualized in quite fantastic ways. In San Francisco, those attending the American Ring will see the Valkyries as paratroopers, with one or two even parachuting in to their home base (of course, secured to guy wires and bungie cord-like apparatuses for both musical and insurance reasons), while others are packing their parachutes for the next trip.

[Below: a valkyr returns to home base from her battlefield mission; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

The Los Angeles Opera valkyries resemble neither female paratroopers nor Ingrid Bergman in her Joan of Arc costume. Each rides on a mechanical contraption that appears to be part horse and part bicycle (visible in the photograph of Loge in the picture at the bottom of this page). They ride these machines as the great disk revolves, permitting each valkyr more often than not to appear at the part of the disk nearest the audience whenever they have a line to sing.

Whichever the production, once the Ride has run its course, the valkyries do have a dramatic purpose – hiding Bruennhilde for a few moments to distract Wotan, thereby allowing one of the sisters to take pregnant Sieglinde and the pieces of the sword Nothung to a hiding place near the cave where the giant Fafner has turned himself into a dragon to guard the Gold, the Ring, and the Magic Helmet.

But Act III is much more than the always exciting Valkyrie Ride. The rest of the act is filled with the  great showpieces that assure that Act III of “Walküre” is likely always to be the most popular single act that Wagner wrote. It contains the dialogue and reconciliation between Wotan and Bruennhilde, her loss of immortality as the punishment for her disobedience, Wotan’s farewell and the creation of the Magic Fire to guard her sleep until, in the next “Ring” opera,  a hero (whom we know will be Siegfried) braves the fire and wakes her with a kiss.

The magic fire in the Seattle Ring is in the primeval outdoors setting which recurs throughout.

[Below: Wotan (here, Greer Grimsley) summons a magic fire to protect the sleeping Bruennhilde; edited image, based on a Chris Bennion photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera. ]

In the American Ring, to be shown in San Francisco, it surrounds an industrial slab framed by metal staircases and poles containing the square portraits of fallen American servicemen.

In the Los Angeles Opera Ring, the concluding scene of “Walküre” contains images that are totally unexpected as stage representations, yet are present as leit motivs in the score. In Freyer’s L. A. concept, as noted in the past, avatars appear when any reference to a person or thing occurs in the music, as well as in the words being sung.

So, when Wotan summons Loge to light the fire, one hears the musical representation of the flicker of the flames in Seattle and San Francisco, with only Wotan and Bruennhilde actually onstage. But in Los Angeles, Loge’s avatar appears, and, as the great orchestral finale plays the Siegfried theme, heralding the next opera, an avatar for Siegfried crosses through the magic fire.

[Below: in the Achim Freyer production for Los Angeles Opera, the god Loge is summoned to create the Magic Fire, which lights ups the valkyrie’s bicycle-horse machines; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus production, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Among those who would be intrigued by the idea of a “six day Ring”, there may be particular geographic or time reasons that would make the choice of one preferable to another. But for those who have the wherewithal to get to any of the three upcoming Rings, I would recommend considering all of them. The conceptualizations are strikingly different, and each contains special insights into these masterpieces.

It is my personal plan to attend and report on a complete “Ring” in each of these three Pacific Coast cities.  But the “Ring” should not be a vicarious event, but a participatory one. Choose one, two or three (or more) of the Rings described here and make plans to attend them. Each will be a memorable experience.

For a review of the Mariinsky/Kirov “Ring” that was performed in Orange County, California, see: Domingo, Kirov “Walküre” in Costa Mesa – October 7, 2006.)

For a discussion of this reviewer’s first “Walkuere”, see: Die Walküre– November 4, 1956.)