Die Walküre

A wounded deity comes to realize the limits of his power in the heartbreaking second installment of the cycle. Wotan, king of the gods, strives to undo the curse of the ring by fathering a pure-of-heart hero by a mortal woman. But he finds himself torn as events spin out of control and his offspring defy his will. Wotan’s deeply loving but disobedient daughter is sung by soprano Nina Stemme, who makes her cycle debut. Stemme is a performer of "fearless emotional intensity," said The New York Times. Following her performance in Die Walküre (June 2010), the San Francisco Chronicle praised Stemme as "a superb Brünnhilde, bringing buoyancy and verve to the role."

Soprano Anja Kampe "sang with prodigious grace and power" (Associated Press) as Sieglinde at Washington National Opera, and she joins tenor Brandon Jovanovich in his role debut as Siegmund.

The Story:

Wotan has fathered a mortal son, Siegmund, in order to recover the ring. Siegmund stumbles upon the home of Sieglinde, his unrecognized twin sister. Although Sieglinde is the wife of Siegmund’s sworn enemy, the two are mutually attracted and consummate their incestuous relationship. Wotan’s outraged wife Fricka, protector of marriage vows, demands that Wotan order his daughter, the warrior-maiden Brünnhilde, not to protect Siegmund, but to let him die in battle against Sieglinde’s husband. Disobeying Wotan, Brünnhilde tries in vain to prevent Siegmund’s death but rescues the pregnant Sieglinde. To punish Brünnhilde’s disobedience, Wotan puts her into a deep sleep, surrounded by fire, to await a mortal husband.


Sung in German with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 4 hours, 30 minutes with two intermissions

Co-production with Washington National Opera

Audio credit: San Francisco Opera Guild Insight Panel Discussion on The Ring with Mark Delavan (Wotan), Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka), Heidi Melton (Sieglinde), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried in Siegfried) and Brandon Jovanovich (Froh and Siegmund), moderated by Kip Cranna. Recorded live at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco on June 13, 2011. Approximate running time: one hour.


Production photos: Cory Weaver


Production Sponsors:
The Ring of the Nibelung is made possible, in part, by Jane Bernstein & Bob Ellis, the Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation, Roberta and David Elliott, Kristina Flanagan, Mary and Nicholas Graves, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Hiro & Betty Ogawa, The Bernard Osher Endowment Fund, Betty and Jack Schafer and several anonymous sponsors. Additional support provided by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. United Airlines is the official airline of the Ring Festival.


Cast

Brünnhilde Nina Stemme
Wotan Mark Delavan
Sieglinde Anja Kampe * June 15, 22
Sieglinde Heidi Melton June 29
Siegmund Brandon Jovanovich
Fricka Elizabeth Bishop
Hunding Daniel Sumegi
Gerhilde Sara Gartland
Helmwige Tamara Wapinsky
Ortlinde Melissa Citro
Waltraute Daveda Karanas
Rossweisse Lauren McNeese
Grimgerde Renée Tatum
Schwertleite Cybele Gouverneur

Production Credits

Conductor Donald Runnicles
Director Francesca Zambello
Set designer Michael Yeargan
Costume designer Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer Mark McCullough
Projection designer Jan Hartley
Associate Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker
Senior Associate Director Christian Räth
Associate Director Jose Maria Condemi

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

Wotan, wandering the earth disguised as a human Wälse, has fathered twin children by a mortal woman: the Wälsungs Sieg­mund and Sieglinde. To prepare Siegmund for his task, Wotan separated the twins in their youth, leaving Sieglinde to enter a loveless marriage with Hunding while putting Siegmund through endless trials. Siegmund, who calls himself Wehwalt (“Woe­ful”), went to the aid of a woman who was being forced into marriage by her brothers. In his struggle to save her, Siegmund lost his weapons but managed to kill several of the woman’s brothers. As Siegmund fled, Wotan created a mighty storm to separate Siegmund from the brothers’ pursuing kinsman.

ACT I
Exhausted from his flight, Siegmund seeks shelter from the storm in a house built around a great ash tree. Collapsing unconscious on the floor, he is discovered by Sieglinde, who offers him water and mead. She reveals only that the house is Hunding’s and that she is Hunding’s wife. As they talk, an overpowering attraction for each other takes hold of them.
     When Hunding returns and hears the stranger’s history, he reveals that he is himself one of the pursuing kinsmen. The laws of hospitality demand that he offer strangers shelter for one night, but in the morning Siegmund must be prepared to fight him. Sending his wife to prepare him a drink, Hunding leaves Sieg­mund alone. Siegmund then recalls that Wälse had vowed to pro­vide his son with a sword in his hour of need.
Sieglinde, after drugging her husband’s drink, returns to Sieg­mund and tells him of a one-eyed stranger who appeared at her wedding feast and thrust a sword deep into the ash tree, saying that only a great hero would retrieve it. Many had tried and all had failed to pull the sword from the tree. Still ignorant of their identi­ties, Wälse’s children give way to their passionate love. Magically, the walls open up and spring moonlight streams in on the embracing lovers. Sieglinde now understands that this man is her brother and she calls him by his true name, Siegmund. Seizing the sword, Siegmund names it Nothung, the Needed One. Drawing the sword from the tree, he presents it as a bridal gift to Sieglinde. From her response he, too, understands that they are brother and sister, united in love and blood.

ACT II
With his plans developing just as he intended, Wotan instructs his favorite Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, to ensure that Siegmund kills Hund­ing in the impending fight. But no sooner has Brünnhilde left than Fricka, Wotan’s wife and goddess of marriage vows, arrives and angrily protests the sacrilege of Sieglinde’s incest and infidelity. Fricka argues that in Nothung Siegmund has an instrument of the gods and is therefore not an innocent. She then demands that Siegmund die for her honor. Wotan, who must abide by the laws and contracts engraved on his spear, reluctantly pledges to with­draw his protection of Siegmund. Brünnhilde’s exuberant return is cut short by the tension between Wotan and his wife. Utterly down­cast, Wotan now foresees only the end of the gods. Revealing to Brünnhilde the whole story of the Ring, he commands her to with­draw Nothung’s power. When Brünnhilde protests, Wotan angrily instructs her to ensure Siegmund’s death in the fight. Miserable over her obligation, Brünnhilde nonetheless goes off to do her duty.
     After a flight through the forest, Siegmund and Sieglinde stop to rest. Exhausted, frightened, and guilt-ridden, Sieglinde sinks to sleep in Siegmund’s arms. Brünnhilde comes to Siegmund and tells him he must die, but that she will take his soul to join the heroes of Valhalla. Siegmund, learning that Sieglinde can never join him there, refuses, saying he would rather kill himself and his sister than allow anyone else to touch her. His devotion arouses such pity in the Valkyrie that she vows to disobey Wotan. Experi­encing feelings of love for the first time, she prepares to protect Siegmund as Hunding’s hounds are heard in the forest nearby. But Wotan’s purposes are not so easily deflected; furious at Brünnhilde’s disobedience, he appears in the middle of the fight and shatters Nothung with his spear. He kills Hunding. Brünnhilde flees with Sieglinde and the broken pieces of Nothung.

ACT III
In a remote location, Brünnhilde’s sisters are assembling with newly slain heroes they have gathered for Valhalla’s guard as the fleeing Brünnhilde brings Sieglinde to them. When her warrior sis­ters refuse to help her, Brünnhilde reveals that Sieglinde is carrying Siegmund’s child, destined to become the greatest of all heroes and to bear the name Siegfried. Giving Sieglinde the shattered Nothung, Brünnhilde sends her into the wild to escape Wotan’s wrath. Sieglinde has hardly left before Wotan arrives. Shielded at first by the other Valkyries, Brünnhilde faces her angry father. Wotan tells her she has forfeited her rights as a demigod; she shall be cast into a deep sleep on a rock, prey to any man who finds her. Her pleading softens Wotan’s anger, and he finally agrees to her request: only the greatest of heroes shall be able to take her. Sadly, Wotan bids farewell to his favorite daughter. He tells her she shall be surrounded by a wall of flame, and with a final kiss he removes her divine attributes. Gesturing with his spear, he commands Loge, the spirit of fire, to encircle her with flames.

Director's Note

Francesca Zambello

Francesca Zambello discusses her inspirations for our new Ring cycle

In the summer of 1981 I climbed to the top of Red Rocks, a vast outdoor arena for rock concerts at the foot of the Rockies near Denver, where gods and goddesses seem just out of sight. Space seems immeasurable in a place like that and time appears to slow down, as if awaiting an appearance from the earth goddess Erda. I have often thought of this view in our planning of Wagner’s Ring cycle now unfolding in San Francisco. It was very evocative of how I thought the Ring could start, and I began to see an American parallel to the story.
 
Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado
Photo: Denver Public Library 
 
As a director of something as immense as the Ring cycle, ideas and inspirations come from different points of your life in addition to drawing from research and references. But you always have to start with something personal. Often for me it is images, which then lead to the characters who can live inside those images.
 
The greatness of Wagner’s vast world is that it encompasses the past, present, and future. The timeless themes of the Ring—the destruction of nature, the quest for power, corruption, the plight of the powerless—are not bound to the nineteenth century’s Industrial Age, nor to Europe or some leafy Nordic realm of long ago. So much of America’s stories, myths, visions, and iconographic images are in many ways analogous to the Ring. All of the great paintings of the idealized American West fit in with Wagner’s idea of what you see for such a short time in the beginning of Das Rheingold. Our Valhalla is something like one of those nascent, technically ingenious 1930s skyscrapers that speak to the American dream as well as the mess left in the wake of their construction. The battlements in the Presidio and the Marin Headlands were immediately suggestive of the war zone that is the realm of the gods. These American images all filtered into our palette as we constructed our stage world.
 
And while the setting of our Ring is certainly grounded in American iconography, it isn’t limited to that. Many of our “locations” could be anywhere today. The setting ultimately feels like a world we know, which allows the characters to shine through. And the characters are at the heart of the Ring.
 
While Wagner’s themes are epic and grand, the scenes he creates to tell the story are very small and intimate. It was crucial for us to place the intimate inside the epic in this piece, to balance the larger than life with the personal. Gods, goddesses, creatures, heroes, and mere humans are all equally at home in Wagner’s world. Many set out on journeys that will take them through terrifying landscapes demanding courage, heart, understanding, and sacrifice. As they are transformed, so are we who watch but sense their stories are also ours.
 
Set Designer Michael Yeargan (left) and Zambello at
a technical rehearsal for Götterdämmerung in 2010
Photo: Kevin Berne
 
The parallels of our own contemporary story and those of the Ring came into focus for me in 2001. I was working with David Gockley at Houston Grand Opera when ENRON imploded. We looked on in shock as the city collapsed, taking down the local men of myth and an economy built on avarice and math magic: bad deals, bad faith, bad banking, greed, and ambition on a colossal scale. We dwell in what sometimes seem like corresponding worlds in which Wotan gives up an eye to build a mansion he can’t afford, and a young goddess provides eternal youth through negotiable apples of eternity—worlds in which man is out of balance with nature.
 
When we began production in 2005 in Washington, D.C., the seat of political power, we focused on the misuse of it. In San Francisco, where Californians have a keen consciousness of nature and the environment, we placed more emphasis on despoliation. Is there a major river in the U.S. that hasn’t been raped like the Rhine as the brooding E-flat chords begin Das Rheingold? From the clouds of Los Alamos to Three Mile Island and the BP oil spill, the natural resources that built this country have been on an inevitable path to destruction. How do we rebuild them?
 
It’s fitting that California is where our complete cycle takes place. The western shore is our last chance for reinvention. It’s the part of our geography where we can no longer cast off old environments and ignore the havoc we’ve caused, forever changing ourselves with no consequences. Manifest Destiny ends here; we can’t keep moving forward. California is also the part of this country where nature is most unrestrained and uncontrollable—flash floods, mud slides, forest fires, earthquakes.
 
As the curtain rises on our Ring, you will see the pristine world of an idealized natural landscape. As the cycle proceeds, the glistening world sickens, changes, trembles, darkens, and decays. And when the curtain falls, the world seems bereft of anything alive as we know it, now destroyed by our own making. The Norns live inside a computer, attached to the motherboard by bundles of cables; the only visible sign of nature in Götterdämmerung is a slowly dying tree in the Gibichungs’ hall. In Siegfried, Fafner is a scrap metal compactor who bleeds oil when Siegfried slays him. The fire that surrounds Brünnhilde has a greenish tinge suggesting chemical combustion. We are left hoping that the despoiled world might be reborn through her redemptive suicide.
 
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the Ring is Wotan’s failure to realize the perfect hero he so desires was actually his daughter Brünnhilde. I call her the hero rather than the heroine because she achieves in a sense what no man can achieve: returning the Ring to the Rhinemaidens and restoring a natural order. By her self-sacrifice, we come to a new world. For me, it’s a world where mankind is not conflated to godliness, where there is a society with morals. It’s allowing us to start over, and that’s what she enables all who stayed behind to do.
 
Zambello with Andrea Silvestrelli (left) and Gerd Grochowski (right)
at a Götterdämmerung rehearsal
Photo: Kristen Loken
 
In the Ring, I have seized on the Christian motifs of redemption and reinvention—even the act of another’s sacrifice to redeem us so that we don’t have to face the full consequences. I am an optimistic believer in personal transformation. This impulse is of course hugely American, not only in its New Testament feel but also the “right” to reinvent ourselves in a single lifetime, a single generation. Creating a better life not just for our kids, but for ourselves—it’s the essence of the American experience and what makes us different from wherever we fled.
 
The winners in American life are those who drive for redemptive transformation now; the losers wait patiently for another life. This lack of impulse control, the push against predestination, the drive to not let the gods tell us what are place is, the belief that we have a right to have it all in our own lifetimes are not only particularly American but also post-Christian, as Christianity originally looked towards a better life after death.
 
I am indebted to the artists with whom I have collaborated on the evolution of this production. We were all on a collective, unified vision through constant communication and diligence—like the ropes of destiny. We knew where we were going from the beginning, and we knew what the end was going to be. My gratitude also goes out to the many people who have brought this Ring to life, and to our audiences on the voyage with us. Thank you.

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Die Walküre: Brünnhilde and Wagner’s Creative Intuition

Thomas May

The author sheds light on many facets of the most frequently performed part of the Ring cycle

Many an opera lover has found Die Walküre to offer the most appealing entrée into the labyrinth of Wagner’s Ring cycle. The composer himself grew surprised by how thoroughly its characters moved him—surprised because the Ring’s original focus had, after all, been on his young hero Siegfried and the great tragedy of his downfall. It was in order to intensify its emotional weight that Wagner decided to dramatize the chain of events leading inevitably to Siegfried’s death—hence giving us the four-part cycle.
            Yet as he plunged deeper into his work, Wagner found himself in a situation uncannily resembling that of Wotan in Die Walküre: He had not reckoned that his creation would exert such a powerful will of its own, forcing him to take unexpected directions. When Brünnhilde justifies her defiance of Wotan’s command by declaring that she acted in accordance with what her father truly wanted, she might also be speaking of Wagner’s creative intuition as it subverted his original conscious intentions.
            Thus the composer’s concept of Wotan as a handy symbol of the corrupt old order that must be swept away evolved into an unfathomably richer characterization of the god in his torment. Moreover, Brünnhilde acquired a newfound complexity that enhanced the Valkyrie’s original role as the “co-redeemer” who literally brings an end to the cycle through her sacrifice. Die Walküre, in which the human and divine planes intersect so tragically, lays out the vast dimensions that Brünnhilde’s development will span. She is, in fact, the only character in the Ring who will ultimately gain true enlightenment from her experience. And her relationship with Wotan in this opera forms a pivotal counterweight to the new world on which she sets out in her relationship with Siegfried.
            In the process, the “free hero” Siegfried—and the entire political-revolutionary thrust of that had been the Ring’s starting point—was eclipsed. Wagner’s idiosyncratic tailoring and tweaking of mythic sources took on truly mythic resonance. “I was unconsciously following a quite different, and much more profound intuition,” wrote Wagner to a friend as he attempted to explain how his original plan—which had been prompted by his vision of a “Hellenistically optimistic” utopia resolving the Ring’s tragedy—became superseded. “Instead of a single phase in the world’s evolution,” he continued, “what I had glimpsed was the essence of the world itself in all its conceivable phases…since I had remained faithful to my intuitions rather than to my conceptions.”
            Thus the incidents depicted in Die Walküre, technically speaking, form part of the background to the central tragedy of the Ring, and the plight of the Wälsung twins Sieglinde and Siegmund is even further removed—a story within the background story. Yet this “first day” of the cycle (Wagner terms Das Rheingold a “preliminary evening”) brings the stakes involved in that tragedy to the fore with overwhelming clarity.
            Wagner drafted the entire opera in a fever pitch of inspiration between June and December 1854. He lavished more time on the full orchestration, which was completed—after many interruptions along the way—in March 1856. Die Walküre’s score marries this sense of in-the-moment spontaneity with an intricately crafted sound world. The orchestral spectrum ranges widely, from chamber music intimacy (especially in the first act and final scene of the opera) to full ensemble in all its Wagnerian glory. While orchestrating the first act, Wagner again surprised himself, observing, “I have never written anything like it before!”
            By this point, Wagner could take advantage of his rapidly developing familiarity and ease in manipulating the unique musical system he had devised for the Ring—not just the system of leitmotifs but his technique of word setting and his ability to make the orchestra resound with the deepest and most entangled subconscious feelings of his characters. All of this Wagner deploys with greater flexibility and fluidity in Die Walküre.
            The music of nature, for example, permeates Das Rheingold (from the flowing water at the very beginning of the world to the magniloquent thunderstorm and rainbow leading the way to Valhalla). Yet this can seem like a more literal-minded exposition than what we encounter in Die Walküre. In the latter, music depicting nature works on multiple levels, serving as a metaphor for inner nature alongside its external, “realistic” guise. Particular points of view come sharply into focus.
            The driving storm music at the opera’s outset brings this home: Its urgency portrays Siegmund’s own sense of self as a hunted refugee, who later finds emotional refuge with Sieglinde from the “winter storms” of their world. It is even possible to trace the opera’s essential dramatic arc through Wagner’s recurrent storm-as-metaphor music. Fricka represents the “old storm” come to challenge Wotan; the über-famous “Ride of the Valkyries” is actually a prelude to the storm Brünnhilde has unleashed within Wotan, which can be tempered only by her punishment and permanent exile from Valhalla.      
Wagner also profits from having the imagery of Das Rheingold in place—exposition-like as it was—as a background foil for the counterpoint that Die Walküre’s characters more poignantly trace against it. A generation has now elapsed since the events of Das Rheingold; the world has grown remarkably darker. Wagner emphasizes this devolution—and in the process and with great economy implies the sense of epic scale that is involved—by showing us how humans, in their own world, have been forced to re-enact the stories of the gods we saw in the earlier opera.
            Thus the outrageous bartering of Freia, goddess of love, for Valhalla is now commonplace, the conventional way of life—as Sieglinde’s story makes heart-rendingly clear. Indeed, the key love motif of the Wälsungs derives from Freia’s signature music. Like Freia, Sieglinde has been reduced to mere chattel in a forced marriage with Hunding. The latter’s music of haughty rhythms and brute brass chords connects him with the giants. Yet Hunding is the status quo; for all his barbarism, he lives by the prevailing social codes. This is why his plea to Fricka triggers the immense confrontation in the first part of Act Two. To caricature Fricka as a cold-hearted, scolding legalist is to miss Wagner’s point entirely. He endows the goddess with dignified eloquence, for she has the courage to force her husband to face the contradiction that doomed his plan.
            Hunding’s brutality echoes the callousness of Alberich, but it also mirrors the power politics and rule of fear that have been established by Wotan. Deryck Cooke, one of the most perceptive of all commentators on the Ring, observes in his invaluable I Saw the World End that Wotan’s power as a war-god (rather obscured in Das Rheingold) is front and center in Die Walküre. Wotan has used his power to stir up strife and warfare among men so that he can choose the hardiest in battle to form his elite army to protect Valhalla. The Valkyries themselves are part of this system. At the same time, he has engineered a hero, Siegmund, who rebels against the prevailing order, rejecting its conventions. Siegmund is more than a “rival” to Hunding for the love of Sieglinde: He is an outcast who challenges the values—such as the enslavement of women in loveless marriage—that give Hunding his social identity.
            This contradiction forces Wotan to his breaking point in the great second-act monologue. Far from a mere narrative “recap” of events from Das Rheingold (Wagner also, incidentally, slips in new information about the god’s own shady past), Wotan’s soul-baring to Brünnhilde reveals his sense of tragic entrapment. It is a negative epiphany that can envision no way out of the fundamental conflict on which the Ring pivots.
            Most often this conflict is framed as the antithesis between love and power. Again, Das Rheingold had illustrated its terms rather literally: Alberich swears off love to gain the power symbolically embodied in the gold and its ring, while Wotan, if only temporarily, trades the goddess of love for Valhalla. But the consequences of this conflict have now become unbearably tangible.
            The love story between the Wälsungs, narrative “detour” that it is, evokes such emotional resonance because of its fragility in the world Wotan has bequeathed them. For a brief respite, the Wälsungs are able to defy this tragic pattern, but the hope expressed in Siegmund’s “Spring Song” of moonlight (among the earliest musical sketches Wagner made for the opera) inevitably meets its destruction. The fragility of their love foreshadows what Brünnhilde will later experience with Siegfried: love is in fact a rare exception, easily undone, in the world of the Ring. (Wagner’s famous announcement to Liszt that he had decided to devote an opera to the story of Tristan and Isolde—“since I have never in my life known the true happiness of love”—came, not coincidentally, while he was immersed in composing Die Walküre.)
            Erda’s warning at the end of Das Rheingold gave Wotan his first inkling of how his dilemma would play out. But in Die Walküre, Wagner tightly narrows the focus to Wotan’s point of view. His music broods in near silence but swells to a nihilistic climax as the god acknowledges the emptiness of Valhalla’s pomp. Yet Wotan’s moment of profound understanding is limited. It is Brünnhilde who learns to see past her father and discern a way beyond this impasse. She is, fittingly, the linchpin of the opera whose name singles her out.
            Nina Stemme, who undertakes her role debut at San Francisco Opera as the Brünnhilde of Die Walküre observes how literally far-ranging are Wagner’s challenges. “She starts out with the war-cry so high in the voice, ‘Hojotoho!’ and then almost becomes an alto in the Annunciation of Death scene—but later is so dramatic in the third act, where she persuades Wotan to give in a little, despite his power.”
            The vocal scope of the role reflects the enormous development her character undergoes in Die Walküre, unlike the more lyrical Brünnhilde of the third act of Siegfried, in which Stemme—who first sang that role in Vienna last year—detects influences of Tristan. “For me, it’s important to start out as a happy and fearless young girl. The production emphasizes Brünnhilde as the son Wotan never had. But Wagner illustrates so many aspects of love here: the ‘free love’ of the twins, but also the love of father and daughter. He shows how children discover that their parents have flaws. Brünnhilde is able to see Wotan’s weak spots.”
            One of the key dramaturgical hurdles of Die Walküre is how to stage the act of listening that is so central to Brünnhilde’s development. Stemme points out that “we spent a lot of time reading and translating the text with Francesca. For example, I discovered that in Brünnhilde’s exchange with Wotan in the second act, he tells her for the first time that Erda is her mother. I find it fascinating to discover what can be used for moments of improvisation. Opera is about finding new ways to express emotionally the vast amount of information contained in the score.”
            Indeed, Wagner encodes in the music and drama what happens as the Valkyrie listens. The moving scene in which she arrives to announce Siegmund’s death is as profound a turning point as Wotan’s monologue—but it is unseen by Wotan. Brünnhilde actually evolves by coming to understand the doomed hero’s point of view and the depth of his love for Sieglinde: his passion and compassion together. In one of Wagner’s countless brilliant intuitions, he shows the humans once more echoing the world of the gods, but in a powerfully ironic reversal. Like Wotan earlier in the act, Siegmund sees through to the emptiness of Valhalla’s glory and rejects it—for the sake of love.
            Brünnhilde begins as the rigid voice of fate itself, with music of dark, unyielding solemnity. Siegmund’s refusal of Valhalla for Sieglinde’s sake moves the warrior maiden to understand exactly what has eluded Wotan. Brünnhilde’s unanticipated reaction brings her to challenge Wotan’s power and thus herself reject the life of Valhalla. Yet she follows her intuition that doing so is to obey Wotan’s deepest, most enlightened wish: Brünnhilde herself becomes the truly free agent he had vainly tried to engineer through Siegmund.
            In the final act, Wagner uses the animated exaggeration of the Valkyrie music—a cousin to Loge’s unstable flickers and trills—as a foil for the new Brünnhilde who emerges from this experience. The sterility of the Valkyries—chaste war-maidens as opposed to the seductive Rhinemaidens—subliminally reminds us of the barren hopelessness of Wotan’s scheming as war-god. It will now be up to his banished daughter to carry on with his desire for an enlightened order. As always, Wagner’s musical choices reinforce the dramatic truth. The first two acts ended with unequivocal climaxes: love triumphant at the end of act one and the shattering reversal at the end of act two, which culminates in Wotan’s violent rage—optimism followed by the bleakest nihilism.
            Ambiguity, though, comes to the fore at the end of Die Walküre. Brünnhilde is on her way to full humanity, forced out of the system of power she had once helped to shore up. But love is more precarious than ever in the world around her. The reappearance of the “renunciation of love” motif as Wotan bids farewell may take us by surprise—as it did when Siegmund invoked it before pulling the sword free—yet it points to that precariousness. At the end of Das Rheingold, Loge had ironically wondered what comes next. He now returns, via the orchestra, in his most elemental form of fire. Wagner weaves the strains of the Magic Fire around the sleep motif, an innocent lullaby. The opera’s subdued close is like a musical question mark.

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The Ring of the Nibelung: Die Walküre

Thomas May

Part II of Thomas May's program note for this summer's Ring cycle

Peter Hoffman (Siegmund) and Jeannine Altmeyer (Sieglinde) in 1985's Die Walküre
Photo by Ron Scherl
 
Love Enters In
 
The moving but doomed love story that begins Die Walküre is the first of the startling shifts in perspective that enrich the Ring’s texture. After the omniscient, epic mode of Das Rheingold, Wagner’s focus narrows to intimate drama. In fact the plight of Siegmund and Sieglinde involves a digression from the cycle’s central narrative. Yet the introduction of the human realm here show us for the first time in the Ring’s universe what the transforming power of love means—the love that, in Das Rheingold, we saw cursed and bartered and humiliated. Ever since, the world has become even darker and less hospitable to love. Wotan’s energies are now directed toward securing what power he has, with the hope of retrieving the Ring. This blooming of love against all odds briefly sets the negative forces that mostly dominate the Ring in relief. It highlights a key pattern of the cycle—hope followed by its destruction—and foreshadows the tragedy of Brünnhilde and Siegfried.
 
Wagner also comes to this part of the Ring with a musical advantage: Having begun to develop his motif technique, he is more at ease in drawing out the possibilities of his orchestral language, which he uses to sound out the psyches of his characters. (In the Ring, their words are often just the tip of a vast iceberg of signification.) Wagner’s music for his doomed pair is so persuasive that it induces us to forget the incestuous bond between Sieglinde and Siegmund.
In his fascinating new book, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, Laurence Dreyfus points out that the composer’s early general sketch for the Ring scenario from 1848 strangely avoids the erotic dimension, despite the overwhelming importance of love in the cycle. Yet for the love duet with which Die Walküre’s first act reaches its climax, writes Dreyfus, Wagner unmistakably eroticizes the atmosphere, manipulating motifs, rhythm, and harmony to “give vent to the uninhibited obsession of the lovers.” The full wash of orchestral sonority here contrasts vividly with the tenderly blended tonal palette, intimate as chamber music, of the Volsung twins’ first encounter. It’s a vivid musical counterpart to the moonlight that briefly floods hope into the lovers’ lives.
 
Wotan’s Dilemma
 
But Wagner’s passionate music drives home the point that the warmth and humanity of this love story represent an exception to the harsh reality of the world. The human civilization that has evolved since Das Rheingold reflects the fear-based rule of Wotan. Hunding’s music brutally intrudes with its jabbing chords and haughty rhythms; his motif has a barbaric quality in common with the Giants.
 
Hunding’s complaint triggers the confrontation between Fricka and Wotan. Wagner takes great care to represent Fricka’s point of view with dignity. The law she defends, after all, lies at the basis of Wotan’s claim to power. He is caught between this law (the basis of convention) and his desire for a new order, pinning his hopes on Siegmund to bring about a paradigm shift to the latter. Fricka’s honesty (so different from the scolding caricature she is often assumed to be) compels Wotan to accept that his machinations would in fact undermine his power.
Wotan’s enormous monologue in the second act is the crucial turning point of the Ring. It is where the central dilemma of the cycle comes into focus with searing clarity. Erda’s abstract warning at the end of Das Rheingold gave Wotan his first inkling of how his dilemma might play out; Die Walküre narrows the focus to Wotan’s point of view. He must not only betray the human son he loves but abandon his plan to bring about a more enlightened world. At this point in the Ring, as far as Wotan can see, the lovelessness chosen by Alberich—and now enforced by the god’s own law—must prevail.
 
Birgit Nilsson (Brünnhilde) and Hans Hotter (Wotan) in 1956's Die Walküre.
This production marked Nilsson's U.S. debut.   
 
The Compassion of Brünnhilde
 
Yet Wotan’s profound moment of self-understanding has its limits. It is left to Brünnhilde to transcend them. Her identity as a Valkyrie means that she herself is invested in the old order of Wotan’s power as a war-god. As Deryck Cooke points out in his invaluable commentary, this aspect of Wotan comes to the fore in Die Walküre: We learn that he has used his power to stir up strife and warfare among men so that he can choose the hardiest in battle to form his protective army in Valhalla.
 
As Wotan’s favored daughter, though, Brünnhilde had already begun to differentiate from her sisters. When the stories of the human lovers and of Wotan’s dilemma intersect in the second act, Brünnhilde is present for both. She spends much of her time in this act as an observer—but not a passive one. When she arrives to announce Siegmund’s death, Brünnhilde initially appears as the voice of fate itself, the emblem of Wotan’s order. But Siegmund’s refusal to be separated from Sieglinde—and his rejection of the pleasures of Valhalla—moves the warrior maiden to understand precisely what has eluded Wotan. Siegmund teaches the Valkyrie the meaning of compassion. This example of the immortals learning from humans is one of the Ring’s most powerful ironies. Brünnhilde’s unexpected reaction to the Volsungs’ plight inspires her to challenge her father’s corrupt power, she becoming the truly free agent Wotan had tried to engineer through his mortal son.
 
Wotan doesn’t realize it yet, since he is blinded by wrath. While hope and passion brimmed over at the end of the first act, Wotan’s wrath overtakes the music in Wagner’s thrilling conclusion to the second act and also fuels much of the third. Wagner has frequently been criticized for indulging in tasteless and cheap effects in such passages as “The Ride of the Valkyries,” by far the best-known moment in the entire Ring. (Wagner himself jokingly referred to it as “my vaudeville.”) Yet all its wild popularity, the “Ride” gains significantly when experienced in its proper context. The Valkyries are basically robots exerting Wotan’s merciless power as a war-god, and their appearance at this point in the drama emphasizes what Brünnhilde will reject as she evolves.
 
Intimate Dialogues
 
Although Die Walküre is so much vaster in scale than Das Rheingold, Wagner’s design of the opera as a whole is inspired by the economy and proportion of ancient Greek tragedy. The drama unfolds almost entirely as a series of two-character dialogues. This contrast to the episodic, fairy-tale-like aspect of Das Rheingold allows Wagner to explore the inner lives and passions of his characters in fuller dimension. Die Walküre’s third act is masterfully structured in counterpoint to the cataclysmic second act. Sieglinde’s rescue restores hope after Siegmund’s slaughter. The dialogue between Wotan and Brünnhilde that occupies the rest of the act reverses the pessimism and wrath of the god’s second-act monologue and brings about the prospect of a new, fearless hero (Siegfried) who will no longer be Wotan’s pawn. In fact, the idea this time is advanced by Brünnhilde rather than the god.
The final scene reverts at first to the chamber-like textures of the first act. And much like the opening of the first act, Wagner shifts from an external, metaphorical storm to an intimate encounter resounding with epiphanies. As Brünnhilde begins to face the exile that is the consequence of her choices, Wagner suggests that Wotan himself is the one really being punished by the break with his daughter. The god, too, reaches a new stage of awareness through his loss. Surprisingly, the motif of Alberich’s renunciation of love appears in the moment Wotan accepts his separation from his daughter. Wagner’s music reminds us that despite all his plans for the good, he has been unable to escape the Ring’s fundamental conflict between love and power.

It will be left to Brünnhilde to acquire wisdom that is deeper even than what Erda knows (but cannot understand). A far more painful stage in her education is yet to follow, yet the Valkyrie’s enlightenment goes beyond the reach of the gods. Wagner implies the possibility of a “clean slate” by referring back to the uncorrupted nature at the beginning of Das Rheingold. The hypnotic motif of Brünnhilde’s sleep is a cousin to the Rhinemaidens’ opening lullaby-like phrase. After the decisive conclusions of the first two acts comes a closure of strangely subdued ambiguity. Now speaking through the orchestra in the “Magic Fire” music, Loge seems to repeat his ironic query at the end of Das Rheingold, where he wondered what comes next.

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Notes on Wagner's Ring Cycle

Greg Waxberg

An overview of Richard Wagner's masterwork

Considered by many the consummate operatic experience, Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) occupied Wagner as composer and librettist for more than twenty-five years, partly because he did not, at the outset, realize the complexity of this undertaking.
            Inspired by Norse and Teutonic mythology, Wagner originally intended to write Siegfrieds Tod (“The Death of Siegfried”), but discovered that such vast background information was required for this one opera that he needed to write Der junge Siegfried (“Young Siegfried”). But the same problem arose twice more, resulting in Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”) and Das Rheingold (“The Rhinegold”).
            Thus, with Siegfrieds Tod renamed Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”) and Der junge Siegfried renamed Siegfried, Wagner composed the four operas of the Ring cycle in reverse, with Das Rheingold serving as a prologue. In fact, the Ring is even more of a cohesive miracle when one learns that twelve years separated the second and third acts of Siegfried because Wagner was convinced the cycle would never be performed.
            “Cohesion” in the Ring refers largely to leitmotifs—melodies that refer to specific people, objects, ideas and places. The number of leitmotifs (and variations of these leitmotifs) is so large that, while the listener can identify all of them, it becomes overwhelming to try. Thankfully, the emotional impact of the music ensures that complete identification is not essential to the listener’s enjoyment and understanding of the story.
            Wagner once told Liszt that the Ring is about the beginning and end of the world, but how does one musically describe the beginning of the world? To understand Wagner’s solution, one should think of the opening of the prelude to Das Rheingold as the beginning of the beginning of the beginning of the beginning—the first notes of the prelude of the first scene of the cycle’s prologue. Wagner utilizes the sound of silence to represent the world—and, by extension, the flowing Rhine River—taking shape from the void.
            Out of darkness, the string basses and woodwinds sound nearly imperceptible in their lowest registers, and they slowly segue to the strings depicting the motion of the river in all of its glory (this motif returns in Götterdämmerung during Siegfried’s Rhine Journey). Roughly mid-way through the first scene with the Rhinemaidens teasing the Nibelung dwarf Alberich (the Nibelung of the cycle’s title), we hear the first of many examples of the Ring’s exhilarating music: the Rhinemaidens’ excitement about the gold, depicted with triangles and cymbals. Not only is the music uplifting, but it also conveys the importance of the gold in all of the action to follow.
            Once Alberich renounces love and steals the gold—the first of his two curses in Das Rheingold—the orchestra transitions from the Ring motif to the majestic Valhalla motif (a portion of which foreshadows the opera’s finale, the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla). This magnificent brass theme befits the mountaintop castle that the giants Fasolt and Fafner have just built for Wotan, for which he promises to give them Freia as payment. We soon grasp the idea that, despite being ruler of the Gods (a descending brass motif signifies Wotan and/or his spear), Wotan is not the most honorable of men because he does not intend to keep his promise.
            Of course, nobody can understand why Wotan made this promise and nobody wants to see Freia sold to the giants, but a promise is a promise, and the giants deserve payment for their labor. The giants’ motif—a slow, intense, weighty combination of drums, brass and strings, emphasis on the drums—instantly memorable, like that of Valhalla, grabs our attention, and this theme also plays an important role in Siegfried.
            Another fantastic orchestral interlude accompanies the scene change to Nibelheim. Wagner’s music takes on urgency in context and content: Wotan needs to get his hands on Alberich’s ring and the rest of the gold to save Freia and the other gods, and the interlude contains the frantic hammering of anvils signifying the toil of Nibelungs, whom Alberich has made his slaves, as well as the leitmotif for anvils, both of which will also return in Siegfried.
            In Nibelheim, aside from Wotan achieving his goal of seizing Alberich and the gold, Wagner introduces a vital tool in the Ring’s plot—the Tarnhelm created by Alberich’s brother Mime. This helmet that allows its wearer to change into any shape will prove crucial after the conclusion of Das Rheingold and during Götterdämmerung. We again hear the anvils and their musical equivalent in the strings during the transition back to the mountaintop along with, among other themes, fragments of the giants’ motif.
            Das Rheingold’s action-packed final scene sets the stage for the remainder of the cycle, especially in the music. The brass and drum theme associated with the Nibelungs ascending from Nibelheim with the gold—the music’s climax coincides with the gold reaching the surface—will, like two other motifs previously mentioned, return for Siegfried. Now we arrive at Alberich’s second curse, when his anger at having the ring stolen from him erupts into a curse on the ring and everyone who owns it. The blaring brass motif for this curse will dominate the remainder of the cycle and linger in the air every time we hear it.
            Without a doubt, the most arresting aspect of Alberich’s curse is how quickly it comes to fruition—no sooner does Wotan listen to Erda’s wisdom and give the giants the ring along with the Tarnhelm and the rest of the gold (to motifs that include forging), Fafner murders Fasolt and we hear the curse motif, the first of numerous repetitions during the rest of the Ring. The cycle’s prologue concludes with storm music that clears the air for a rainbow bridge and the famous, noble Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla, another showcase for the drums and brass.
            One over-arching idea propels the action in Die Walküre: how Wotan can regain the ring, which is now being guarded in a forest by Fafner, who has used the Tarnhelm to transform himself into a dragon. The amount of subject matter that Wagner covers in this opera is substantial, and the range of emotions is equally weighty—ecstatic love, desperation, glee, heartbreak, despondency, and exhilaration, to name just a few. By the time the final curtain falls, the characters and the audience have experienced an emotional upheaval, set to some of Wagner’s most compelling music.
            The stormy prelude of the first act, most of the material of which is repeated from the storm at the end of Das Rheingold, includes Wotan’s theme, and the sequence of events reveals that Wotan has created this storm to force his son Siegmund to find shelter in the home of his twin sister Sieglinde (they are the Walsung twins) and her husband Hunding, who proves to be Siegmund’s enemy. Siegmund and Sieglinde gradually realize their affection for one another, accompanied at first by the tender music of the lower strings and then by the rapturous love music of the full orchestra—astonishingly, both in this act and as the opera progresses, Wagner’s mastery ensures that our sympathies remain with Siegmund and Sieglinde (and, by extension, Wotan) because of their love for each other. Even when Fricka points out Wotan’s errors to him, we still feel his anguish.
            Which errors? The first is encouraging Siegmund and Sieglinde to violate the laws of marriage. The second is giving Siegmund a magic sword that, theoretically, keeps him independent of the gods in the quest for the ring but that, in reality, means he is still indebted to Wotan because of the sword’s magic (even so, what thrilling high notes the tenor is challenged to sing in the first act, when claiming the sword!). Wotan’s promise to Fricka to take away Siegmund’s sword leaves him devastated, as his plan is now worthless.
            This brings us to the conflict that is at the heart of Die Walküre, which is why the second act is among the most pivotal sequence of scenes in the entire cycle. Wotan intends for Siegmund to win the fight against Hunding, so, therefore, he happily instructs his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde (the Valkyrie of the title) to defend him. Upon consenting to Fricka’s demands, he instructs Brünnhilde not to defend Siegmund, but, when Siegmund refuses to leave Sieglinde, his devotion changes Brünnhilde’s mind, and she decides to disobey Wotan. That decision will change the course of both of their lives.
            To say that the results of the fight are disastrous would be an understatement: not only is Wotan forced to allow his son to be killed, not only is Brünnhilde immediately the focus of his wrath, and not only does Sieglinde lose her husband, but the fight also results in the sword shattering and losing its owner. Wagner’s two-note motif for Wotan’s anger, which brings down the curtain, is another potent combination of drums and brass, while the raging swirl of the strings is no less terrifying.
            Following the deservedly famous, stirring “Ride of the Valkyries,” Wagner plunges us into the turmoil between Wotan and Brünnhilde. Yes, he said to defend Hunding, and, yes, she disobeyed his command and must be punished, but he also knew that he had wanted Siegmund to win and she knew what was really in his heart: how much he loved Siegmund. With that all-important word that encompasses Die Walküre, “love,” Wagner introduces a new motif that conveys indescribably profound emotion, especially between father and daughter. This theme is at the core of Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde—with the word “God” (in the phrase “For only one shall win the bride, one freer than I, the God”), this melody is gradually played by more and more instruments until Wagner expands it to the full orchestra in a tear-jerking climax. With the lovely and tranquil sounds of the Magic Fire Music, and the brass proclamation of Siegfried’s theme, the most popular opera in the Ring concludes as Wotan disappears from Brünnhilde’s rock.
            One character from whom we heard very little during Das Rheingold was Mime, Alberich’s brother. Mime’s place in Siegfried is more significant, not only because he (like everyone else) will do anything to get his hands on the ring, but also because he is the new-found owner of the fragments of Siegmund’s sword and because he had to raise Siegfried following Sieglinde’s death from childbirth. Wagner’s prelude to the first act tells us what is going through Mime’s scheming mind: we hear motifs signifying Fafner the dragon (a lethargic crawl in the brass), forging (the strings’ equivalent of the anvils, first heard in Das Rheingold), the gold (the melody from Das Rheingold when the gold was delivered from Nibelheim), the ring, the sword, and a repeat of forging. The question of how to re-forge the sword is gnawing at Mime, and he is also trying to calculate how to defeat Fafner to win the gold and ring. Enter Siegfried.
            Much of the first half of this act is given over to Siegfried’s anger at Mime’s smithing incompetence (Wagner even creates a motif for Siegfried’s anger), Siegfried’s determination to learn his parents’ identity, and a game of wits between Mime and the Wanderer (Wotan), a scene that reprises information and motifs of many of the characters we have met so far, including the Nibelungs, giants, Gods, and Walsung twins. However, the true dilemma is not that Mime tries to outwit the Wanderer—Mime fails to use the opportunity to solve the enigma of the sword. Aside from a blunder that costs Mime his head, this mistake is also a valuable commentary for society: when you are given the chance to acquire valuable information, ask important questions.
            Another outcome of the Wanderer’s victory is that Mime realizes Siegfried has never learned fear, which essentially means he is invincible at this point because he is not afraid of anything or anyone. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Siegfried re-forges the sword—Nothung—to a new sequence of vigorous motifs, and these orchestral melodies will be repeated in the next act, along with the melodies to which Siegfried sings while he is forging. Amazingly, Nothung is able to split Mime’s anvil!
            While the first act prelude was devoted to Mime, the second act prelude conjures images of Fafner with slow variations of the giants’ motif and the dragon motif, and it recalls Alberich’s curse. Once the other characters withdraw (Alberich, the Wanderer and Mime), Siegfried, in a touching scene with tender music, wonders about his mother, a curiosity that prompts him to use a pipe to imitate a bird and then his horn to try to attract companionship. What he gets is Fafner, and the crucial battle in which Siegfried mortally stabs the dragon results not only in his acquisition of the ring and Tarnhelm, but also the now intelligible, lovely song of the Forest Bird, who leads him to Brünnhilde.
            Listening to the stormy prelude to the final act, it is difficult to believe that a dozen years had passed since Wagner last worked on the Ring, but, here we are, back on a mountaintop, not far from the sleeping Valkyrie daughter. Siegfried, still unafraid of anything, is eager to pass the Wanderer, and, for unknown reasons (except, perhaps, that Nothung is now a symbolic extension of Siegfried’s fearlessness), his sword is able to shatter the Wanderer’s spear—a reversal of past events, when the spear shattered the sword. The Wanderer has lost his power and disappears from the scene, from the opera and from the Ring.
            As Siegfried advances to the mountaintop, Wagner provides an exciting orchestral interlude that blends Siegfried’s horn call with variations on the Magic Fire Music. It is only when he observes Brünnhilde that Siegfried finally learns fear—he is afraid of this person, the first woman he has ever seen. The orchestra, specifically the woodwinds then strings, responds to his kiss with a glowing depiction of Brünnhilde awakening and hailing the sun; this motif will be heard again in the cycle’s final opera, including, ironically, at a moment of tragedy. Siegfried’s and Brünnhilde’s concluding love duet is the opera’s crowning achievement.
            Lightness and darkness are at odds with each other in Götterdämmerung, with the plot of this concluding opera heavily clouded by villainy. In the prelude, Wagner combines Brünnhilde’s awakening motif (light) with a foreboding brass theme (dark, and reminiscent of Siegmund’s death). With the entrance of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the orchestra tells us that Siegfried has matured, as his heroic theme has evolved into a bold, triumphant statement for the full orchestra. Shortly thereafter, when Siegfried leaves, eager for new feats of glory, the Rhine Journey (light) depicts the river even more vigorously than the prelude to Das Rheingold, and the music recalls the Rhinemaidens’ excitement about the gold.
            Immediately after the Rhine Journey concludes, Wagner introduces a new motif (dark) for Hagen, Alberich’s son who dominates this opera. Hagen’s schemes are so villainous that the very approach by Siegfried to the Hall of the Gibichungs, in response to Hagen’s entreaty, is accompanied by the orchestra’s thunderous rendition of the curse motif—by entering the hall, Siegfried is doomed. From this point forward, events proceed from disturbing to bad to worse, all of which is reflected in the music, including a sinister duet for Siegfried and Gunther, as they swear blood brotherhood, and Hagen’s brooding soliloquy.
            Tragedy in this opera comprises two forms—the tragedy of Siegfried being tricked into forgetting Brünnhilde and winning her as a bride for Gunther, and the eventual tragedy of death. In the second act, following a stirring chorus of Hagen’s vassals (the only chorus in the Ring), everyone realizes that something is amiss when Brünnhilde and Siegfried accuse each other of lying about why he is wearing the ring that used to be on her hand. Hagen, not wasting a moment to advance his own interests and knowing he can use Siegfried’s words against him, allows each of them to swear an oath on his spear and later convinces Gunther and Brünnhilde that Siegfried must die to atone for his betrayal. Wagner again contrasts light and dark to conclude the act—a wedding procession (light, although ironic under the circumstances) and a repeat of Hagen’s theme, reminding us of his constant plotting.
            The prelude to the final act bounces back and forth between Siegfried’s horn call and Hagen’s theme before transitioning to motifs that recall the very beginning of the prelude to Das Rheingold, followed by a lighthearted motif for the playful Rhinemaidens who try unsuccessfully to regain the ring from Siegfried. Continuing the storytelling pattern of the cycle, Hagen persuades Siegfried to tell the story of his upbringing and the other events that have brought him to this point, and this is another opportunity for Wagner to recall motifs for each person or event. Conveniently, of course, Hagen restores Siegfried’s memory of Brünnhilde just in time to murder him.
            Siegfried’s murder and farewell to Brünnhilde are accompanied by harsh death chords and reprises of Brünnhilde’s awakening music and the Walsung motif, representing Siegfried’s heritage. Siegfried’s Funeral Music is an orchestral showpiece, particularly for the percussion. The sword motif leads to an overwhelming orchestral crescendo, striking death chords punctuated by crashing cymbals. These death chords blend with both of Siegfried’s themes as the funeral march continues.
             Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, its aftermath—the Rhinemaidens regain the ring and Valhalla is engulfed by flames—and the orchestral summary of motifs propel the Ring to its final moments. In these last minutes of the cycle, following hours of richly-orchestrated leitmotifs, Wagner leaves us with the themes for the Rhinemaidens, Valhalla, Siegfried and redemption. When the final curtain falls, there is no doubt that we have witnessed the consequences of greed, envy and hatred, leaving us to ponder the better world that could result from kindness and compassion.

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A History of the Ring in San Francisco

David Littlejohn

Journalist David Littlejohn survey's San Francisco's 110-year history as a Ring town

Opera came early to San Francisco. An adventurous Italian troupe put on productions of Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Norma as well as Verdi’s Ernani in this roisterous boomtown in 1851. By 1860, hundreds of performances had been mounted, almost all of them Italian. The nearest early San Francisco came to German opera were twenty performances (in Italian, of course) of two operas by an Austrian: Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.
 
The first of Wagner’s Ring operas to be performed in San Francisco was Die Walküre, in 1891 by Emma Juch’s touring opera company. (Miss Juch sang Sieglinde.) It was led by Adolf Neuendorff, a former conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The Chronicle critic was dismayed by the cheesy effects, which he blamed partly on Wagner’s impossible stage directions. About the music, he had mixed feelings. “This is not the most enjoyable form of musical or dramatic art on the stage, but it is great art.” The audience completely filled Morosco’s Grand Opera House on Mission Street near Third, which held 4,000 customers, including standees.
 
Program cover from the Metropolitan Opera's touring company productions in 1900, which included San Francisco's first Ring cycle.
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
 
In 1900—after trying for five years to pull it off—William Grau, the impresario who produced all operas for the Metropolitan in New York and on tour, managed to bring a complete, all-star Ring to the same venue as the climax of a three-week visit. This involved moving nine train-carloads of scenery and 206 people 3,000 miles to perform twenty operas at $2 to $7 a seat. Conductor Walter Damrosch, who (with his father Leopold) had introduced Wagner to New York, came out early to give a series of recital-demonstrations of the great composer’s operas.
 
Nellie Melba, the biggest name on the tour, was back for a second year, but not for Wagner. For San Francisco’s first Ring, Grau brought out as Brünnhilde Lilian Nordica (née Norton; the first great American Wagner singer), Johanna Gadski (Sieglinde), Ernestine Schumann-Heink (Fricka, Waltraute, Erda), Ernest Van Dyck (Siegmund, Loge), Andreas Dippel (Siegfried), David Bispham (Alberich, Wotan), and Edouard de Reszke (the Wanderer, Hagen)—the cream of the Met’s German lineup during its first “Golden Age.”
 
The local critics had grown more sophisticated since 1891. “This is the greatest musical and artistic opportunity ever given in the history of the city,” wrote one. The sets were called “a marvel of mechanical perfection…a masterpiece of scenic art.” “The art of opera has found its highest expression,” wrote a critic for the Call; “fuller, purer, nobler music than we have yet heard even from Wagner himself.” One cranky reviewer found Siegfried to be “puerile, tedious, and exasperatingly dull,” with its “dancing bears and pasteboard dragons.” But his voice was drowned out by the hymns of praise.
 
San Francisco was very pleased with its own good taste. “After last night [Die Walküre] we need fear no comparison with any American cities outside of New York, not even excepting Boston and the boastful Chicago.” This time around, the newspapers went gaga over the glamour of the boxholders and orchestra-seat swells—”perhaps the most fashionable audience ever drawn to an auditorium in this city.” The Call described the gowns and jewels of 182 society ladies present. A company of policemen held back the commoners who lined Mission Street to stare, and they kept the fine folks’ carriages rolling efficiently in and out.
 
Satisfied by the ticket sales, Grau brought back a similar company for three weeks the next year. This time he did not repeat the Ring. Instead, he gave the Wagner-infatuated city its first Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, as well as Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, and eleven other operas. Once again, the daily reviews were almost all raves. “It is something worth being able to say we are ‘in it,’ with London, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and New York. Already, we can look down on Chicago.”
 
By 1904, Heinrich Conried had taken over as the Met’s impresario and brought San Francisco its first Parsifal, defying Wagner’s edict that this “stage-consecrating festival drama” be performed only at Bayreuth. It sold out three houses, with Nordica alternating as Kundry with Olive Fremstad, and Alois Burgstaller (who had sung the role at Bayreuth) in the lead. In 1905, the new attraction of the Met tour was Enrico Caruso, “the new bright light of the singing world,” who sold out whatever he sang. Once again San Francisco filled up three Parsifals.
 
Conreid’s 1906 season in San Francisco promised to be equally exciting: sixteen performances of thirteen operas, with Caruso in Carmen and La Bohème, and Fremstad and Louise Homer in both Die Walküre and Siegfried—as “a forerunner of the Wagner revival [of the Ring?] next year,” predicted the Chronicle.
 
The season opened April 16. On April 17, Caruso sang Don José. At 5:12 the next morning, a large part of San Francisco collapsed. In the three-day fire that followed, the Grand Opera House was one of almost 30,000 buildings destroyed.
 
San Francisco was not to see another complete Ring until 1935. But the rapidly rebuilt city was not totally Wagner-starved. After a few single Ring operas, San Francisco got three-quarters of a Ring (minus Das Rheingold) in January 1931, when the German Grand Opera Company—apparently subsidized by the German government—made its second visit to the city’s 5,000-seat Civic Auditorium, which it came nowhere near to filling. The star of the 1931 tour was the same Johanna Gadski, who had been the darling of New York, London, and San Francisco in and around 1900, but was now well past her prime. (She died a year later, at 59.) Her voice, wrote the Chronicle’s critic, was “still heroic, though she, no more than others, can utterly resist the flight of the years.” The two Siegfrieds were also over the hill. Perhaps only thirty-two-year-old Margarethe Bäumer (who shared Brünnhilde with Gadski) met the demands of her role.
 
Once a permanent resident opera company was created in San Francisco in 1922, it maintained for many years the Gold Rush-era tradition: “opera” meant Italian opera. It was what sold best and was the home of the heart of founding director Gaetano Merola. Between 1923 and 1934, 109 performances of thirty-four operas were sung in Italian. Thirty performances of nine operas were done in French. Six German operas (Hänsel und Gretel, Salome, and four non-Ring Wagner operas) were sung a total of seventeen times. The Wagner operas on offer introduced San Francisco audiences to the great bass Friedrich Schorr, twice as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and once as Telramund in Tannhäuser (with Lauritz Melchior in the lead role). They brought to the city Maria Jeritza and Elisabeth Rethberg—two leading divas of the day—as Elisabeth in the latter.
 
Kirsten Flagstad, San Francisco Opera's first Brünnhilde, and Artur Bodansky, conductor of the Company's first Ring cycle, in 1935.
 
By all accounts, the first home-grown Ring was worth the long wait. For 1935, Merola had engaged the leading Wagner singers in the world—Kirsten Flagstad (a year after her Met debut, singing her first Siegfried Brünnhilde as well as her first Ring), Melchior, Rethberg, and Schorr, and conductor Artur Bodanzky, who had led the Met’s German wing since 1915. All tickets were sold a month before the opening. Reviewers had nothing but praise for the celebrated leads and tolerated the “safely traditional” costumes, sets, and special effects, which hadn’t changed much since 1876. The Rhinemaidens were doubled by ballet girls, who “floated” from the top of the stage to the floor. This time around, half a page of the Examiner was devoted to a list of society women’s gowns and their designers—Molyneux, Chanel, Patou, Lanvin—and the pre-performance parties in the boxes.
 
The following year, three of the four operas were repeated, out of order (they skipped Siegfried so as not to exhaust Flagstad). Lotte Lehmann—”unquestionably the greatest Sieglinde of all time” (Arthur Bloomfield)—took over that role in Die Walküre. Fritz Reiner, it was felt, drew more depth and emotional conviction out of the orchestra. In 1939, Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence traded off the top soprano roles in two performances of Die Walküre. Ten years later, political pressures over Flagstad’s return to Nazi-occupied Norway during the war nearly led to the cancellation of her Brünnhildes and Isoldes—and possibly the whole season—until calmer heads prevailed.
 
It was to be another thirty-seven years before San Francisco Opera—now led by Kurt Herbert Adler—was to offer another complete Ring, this one repeated three times. A new generation of international stars assumed the leading roles in 1972: Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde (trading off with Berit Lindholm, who also sang Sieglinde), Jess Thomas as Siegmund and Siegfried, and Thomas Stewart as Wotan and Gunther. Margarita Lilova sang Fricka, Waltraute, and Erda.
 
Jess Thomas as Siegfried in 1972. He also appeared as Siegmund (Die Walküre) in that Ring cycle.
 
Except for Lindholm, who had only sung Brünnhilde in the 1970 Siegfrieds, all of these singers were well-known to San Francisco opera-goers by 1972. Jess Thomas had made his professional debut here in 1957 and sung eight leading Wagner roles (including Loge, Siegmund, and both Siegfrieds) since 1965. Adler had given Birgit Nilsson her U.S. debut in 1956, as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.
 
This was the first Wagner opera I saw, at nineteen. At the first intermission, I gave up my $3.60 Dress Circle seat for a standee’s place, to keep from dozing off. “He makes all the Italians seem insignificant,” I wrote in my journal—a thought I often have (temporarily) after a good Ring. At the time, I preferred the lyrical Sieglinde of Leonie Rysanek (also making her American debut) and the godlike Wotan of Hans Hotter to Nilsson’s Brünnhilde.
 
Thomas Stewart had been a Company stalwart since 1962, singing nineteen bass-baritone roles. There was some carping about Jess Thomas’s powers of endurance in the most demanding tenor role in opera, but none about his appearance or stage presence. He may have been the most physically convincing Siegfried ever seen onstage. Otmar Suitner from Berlin conducted a committed, occasionally deeply moving orchestra.
 
The real innovations in 1972 were in staging (by Paul Hager) and design (by Wolfram Skalicki). Viewed in an international perspective, they were scarcely innovations. Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s grandsons, had been mounting powerfully abstract, symbolic productions of the Ring at Bayreuth since 1951. So when Hager and Skalicki introduced San Francisco audiences to a Ring made more of light and shadow than of pasteboard rocks, painted drops, and detailed buildings, timelessly simple costumes rather than horned helmets, bearskins, and breast- plates—one dependent more on scrims, spotlights, misty illusions of fire and water, and lighting that washed the scene in tune with the music and the singers’ emotions—they weren’t breaking new ground.
 
In fact, Adler had originally hoped for a Wieland Wagner production, to begin with a Rheingold in 1967. But when Wieland died in October 1966, Adler fell back on his home team. Hager and Skalicki adopted Wieland’s use of light and color, but never went as far as he did in the direction of minimalist abstraction. In any case, after 1970 the Wagner brothers’ timeless, light-created productions were already being replaced by post-modern interpretations that portrayed the gods as greedy capitalists, the Nibelungs as wage slaves, the Gibichungs as Nazis, and the final scene as a nuclear holocaust. The Hager-Skalicki Walküre was repeated in 1976 and 1981 (the second time with Nilsson, Thomas and Rysanek again), and their Rheingold in 1977 for Hanna Schwarz’s U.S. debut.
 
Before he was hired as Adler’s successor in 1982, Terrence McEwen had spent two years imagining a dazzling new Ring that would be naturalistic, romantic, and beautiful, as opposed to the stripped abstractions of New Bayreuth and the defiantly ugly military-industrial statements being made all over Europe. In 1985, after two years of lead-in productions, he managed to whip a great many music lovers (including Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who declared June 1985 “Ring Month” in San Francisco) into a Wagnerian frenzy the city hadn’t seen for half a century.
 
He engaged German director Nicolas Lehnhoff (Wieland Wagner’s former assistant) and designer John Conklin, a Company regular. They came up with a series of handsome stage images, many of them inspired by early nineteenth-century German art and architecture. The gods (except for Loge, who wore a Victorian morning suit) looked more Greco-Roman than Teutonic as they lolled about columned neoclassical terraces that could have been designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the 1810s. As their power decayed, the terraces crumbled. At the end of Das Rheingold, they climbed towards a towering neoclassical Valhalla (which was a faithful reproduction of Dresden’s Semper Oper House), a distant image of which went up in flames as the cycle closed. The Valkyries’ rock was a steep Yosemite-like island cliff that recalled Arnold Böcklin’s Island of the Dead. Barren landscapes looked like Caspar-David Friedrich paintings. All four operas were enclosed in neoclassical side pavilions.
 
To conduct, McEwen tried first for Georg Solti, but the conductor opted to go to Bayreuth instead. His next choice, departing San Francisco Symphony conductor Edo de Waart, led (in his first Ring) an orchestra I found precise and powerful, but passionate only by turns, and never as sublime as the Ring deserves. Lehnhoff’s directing brought out the human weaknesses of everyone onstage.
 
James Morris, vocally and visibly heroic, was to become the leading Wotan of the next twenty years; he sang the role first in this production. A handsome blond German named Peter Hofmann sang Siegmund and the young Siegfried, René Kollo the older Siegfried. Gwyneth Jones and Eva Marton were our Brünnhildes. Hanna Schwarz and Helga Dernesch (still my favorite Fricka) took on the heavier female roles. Walter Berry and Helmut Pampuch were brilliantly nasty as the squabbling Nibelung brothers.
 
In February 1988 an ailing McEwen announced his resignation (only to be upstaged by Adler, who died the next day), and was succeeded by Lotfi Mansouri as general director. Mansouri decided to revive McEwen’s production for June 1990, this time offering four sold-out cycles in an opera house that had been shaken and scarred by an earthquake the year before. (A giant hairnet hung under the starburst chandelier.) Mansouri offered much the same visual production of the Ring as the 1985 version, even though director Lehnoff had left. Two of the cycles were conducted by Donald Runnicles, interpreting his first-ever Rings, two by Peter Schneider. Back to sing were Morris, Jones, Kollo, and Dernesch. Janis Martin and Hildegard Behrens offered alternate Brünnhildes.
 
Hildegard Behrens (Brünnhilde) in our 1990 Ring cycle
 
In 1995, another Runnicles Die Walküre was performed, which marked the Company debut of the huge, Flagstad-voiced Jane Eaglen as a subsitute Brünnhilde. In 1996, the opera house shut down for seismic rebuilding while the Company camped out in its original home, the vast, inelegant Civic Auditorium of 1915—now renamed for rock producer Bill Graham.
 
Back in his handsomely refurbished opera house in 1999, Mansouri decided to offer another four-cycle run of the 1985 Ring, this time with a new director (Andrei Serban) and designer (Robert Perdziola), who made a few flashy changes (Erda, Nibelheim, the giants, the costumes), but otherwise left intact the Lehnhoff-Conklin original.
 
James Morris, strong as ever, sang all the Wotans in the three Runnicles-conducted Rings in June 1999. Having impressed Mansouri by her drop-in role in 1995, Eaglen was chosen as Brünnhilde in the same three cycles, which she sang with Golden Age splendor. Deborah Voigt was a moving Sieglinde. In the three Rings he conducted, Donald Runnicles, now San Francisco Opera’s music director, led the Opera orchestra in one of the most knowing and sympathetic renderings of Wagner’s seventeen-hour score I have heard.
 
When David Gockley came to San Francisco in 2006, he had been thinking about a new Ring for some time, along with director Francesca Zambello (a collaborator of his since 1984, now his artistic adviser) for Houston Grand Opera. In fact, a Houston newspaper suggested that one of his reasons for taking the San Francisco post was the opportunity it offered to do their new Ring here, after his Texas board decided it was too great a risk. Gockley and Zambello set out at once, along with Wagner master-conductor Runnicles and designer Michael Yeargan, to give us the Ring we are seeing this summer.
 
San Francisco audiences have been experiencing Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, often in productions of major distinction, for more than a century. Younger companies in the West—notably Seattle Opera, which has made regular performances of the Ring its trademark since 1975—have taken up the challenge: Chicago in 1996 and 2005, Los Angeles for the first time last year. But outside of New York, since 1900 opera lovers in this country have had better chances of hearing a memorable Ring in San Francisco than anywhere else.

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“Fierce, Compelling!”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Gripping!”

  –San Jose Mercury News
“A performance in which theatrical and musical vitality fused to create a tale of enormous emotional urgency.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“The voices are stunning. The story’s the thing!”

  –San Jose Mercury News
Under Runnicles' baton, “Wagner’s score sounded rhapsodically transparent, vibrant and powerfully athletic.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“The singers rose to their respective assignments with aplomb!”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“An electrifying performance by tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund…first-rate!”

Brandon Jovanovich, "a first-rate Wagner tenor—his voice pliant and tireless, his high notes fresh and clarion."
 
"As Sieglinde, soprano Anja Kampe nearly matched him note for note…and gave a richly colored and technically secure performance."

Daniel Sumegi was a "vocally arresting" Hunding.


  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Gleaming, charismatic Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, a riveting Brünnhilde.”

  –The New York Times
“Tall and handsome, Brandon Jovanovich made an impulsive, youthful Siegmund…and sang with burnished sound and energy.”

  –The New York Times

Performances

  • Wed 06/15/11 7:00pm *

  • Wed 06/22/11 7:00pm *

  • Wed 06/29/11 7:00pm *

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.

Cast, program and prices subject to change.