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Monday, July 11, 2016

The Wagner Project: Die Walküre

The second chapter of the Ring remains its most familiar.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
James Morris (standing) as Wotan in the final scene from Die Walküre. 
Jane Eaglen (lying prone) is Brunnhilde.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2004 The Metropolitan Opera.
This is the opera people think of when they think of Wagner. The Ride of the Valkyries. The Magic Fire scene. Thick orchestrations. Pulse-pounding passions. And some of the composer's best and most enduring music. There's nothing quite like Die Walküre. On a good night (or in a good recording) this is a four hour story that unfolds with the pace of a breakneck car chase--one involving flying horses.

Having finished the long tasks of writing the four Ring poems and composing Das Rheingold, Wagner dove immediately into Die Walküre, finishing the whole opera by 1855.  This was a good move as the story of the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde and the complex relationship between the valkyrie Brunnhilde and her father Wotan would prove to be the most popular section of The Ring. The opera premiered (at the insistence of Wagner's patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria) in 1870, and then was mounted at Bayreuth as part of the complete Ring in 1876.

Die Walküre is the most frequently staged of the four Ring operas, as its fast pace and whipsaw emotions require very little knowledge of German mythology. It opens with a love triangle, as Siegmund falls in love with Sieglinde, the bride of the oafish Hunding. (The realization that they are twin siblings does not stop them from running away together.) In Act II, Hunding kills Siegmund, but Brunnhilde, Wotan's daughter acts to save Sieglinde and the fetus she is carrying, who will grow up to become Siegfried. Brunnhilde is then punished by Wotan, put to sleep atop a mountain encircled by flames.

With Wagner's system of leitmotifs firmly in place, it is inevitable that Die Walküre looks back to the abstract world of Das Rheingold. However, this work is much more concerned with real (if mythological) people and a genuine (if incestuous) love story. It could be argued that the opera is about conflict between old ideas and new, as if Wotan's attempts to break his own rules are in the service of trying to redeem his mistakes in the first opera. (Of course, he just ends up making all new ones.)

This is the opera where Wagner's theories on stage drama and dialogue hold the greatest sway. With the sole exception of grouped Valkyries in the third act, there are no choruses. Characters speak in monologue or dialogue, with the aim being to create dramatic tension and make the words and their meaning maximally clear the the audience. In fact, the libretto is essentially a series of conversations and long speeches, which could be deadly dull if the music weren't so inspired. 

And inspired it is. The build-up of tension in the first act explodes into the glories of forbidden love, hinting at what would come in Wagner's next opera, Tristan und Isolde. The second act is slower, with the first half devoted to Wotan agonizing over the choice he is faced with. (He must abet the killing of his only son or risk losing his power. He chooses poorly.) The Ride (with its familiar "kill da wabbit" rhythm) remains a theatrical coup. And the opera ends with the Magic Fire, an effect that terrified audiences at the work's 1870 premiere. 

Recording Recommendations:
Here are five interesting recordings of Die Walküre.. Unlike Rheingold, this work lends itself very well to live theater. Two live recordings from Bayreuth are included.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca, 1964)
The famous Solti Ring ended not with Götterdämmerung but with Walküre, saved for last because Decca already had another recording of the opera on the market. The plusses here are Birgit Nilsson's exceptional Brunnhilde and the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic. The minuses: a weak-limbed first act and an over-reliance on effects (the alphorn in Act II is jarring) and the fact that Hans Hotter's legendary Wotan is captured in his decline. Gotternot indeed.

Bayreuth Festival cond. Karl Böhm (Philips/Decca 1967)
Recorded quickly by the Dutch label Philips, this live recording of the 1967 Ring captured lightning in a bottle. Part of that is due to the swift tempos of conductor Karl Böhm, one of the fastest Wagnerians on record. The rest is that the superb cast (Birgit Nilsson, Theo Adam, James King, Leonie Rysanek) was directed by Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson and a theatrical genius. Worth hearing just for Ms. Rysanek's orgasmic scream at the end of Act I as Siegmund pulls out the (ahem) sword from the tree.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (DG 1968)
The Karajan Ring is kind of like fantasy football, a lineup that never could have sung these roles in the theater but in front of the Berlin Philharmonic deliver beautiful and modulated performances. Regíne Crespin upgrades here to Brunnhilde, singing with glorious humanity. Jon Vickers is the best Siegmund on disc. Thomas Stewart is a great success as Wotan, and Gundula Janowitz is a very human Sieglinde.

Baverian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Bernard Haitink (EMI/WBC 1985)
James Morris was a man in demand in the '80s, so much so that he recorded Wotan in two separate productions of the Ring, three if you count the Met video performances of the old Otto Schenk cycle. This Munich-based production is superbly conducted by Bernard Haitink and features a better cast than the rival Met/James Levine version, with Cheryl Studer's Sieglinde and Reiner Goldberg's Siegmund making the difference. The presence of Matti Salminen as Hunding is a plus.

Bayreuth Festival cond. Christian Thielemann (Opus Arte, 2009)
This complete Ring is (oddly enough) available on CD and MP3 but only the film of Die Walküre is on DVD. The glory here is Christian Thielemann, the leader of a current generation of young Wagnerians making their way with these operas. He draws genuine emotion from the excess of orchestral narrative, knows how to build momentum in the theater, and the big moments leap out of the speakers. So does Johan Botha, giving the performance of his life as Siegmund. The rest of the cast is solid, led by Albert Dohmen's sturdy, troubled Wotan.

And here it is: Wotan's Farewell and the "Magic Fire" scene 
from the Metropolitan Opera's Robert Lepage production of the Ring
starring Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voigt, Deborah Voigt's body double
 and the enormous set that stagehands nicknamed "The Machine." 

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