That is what the Valkyries say during their famous ride. (Query whether “Geronimo” isn’t a better war cry.)
Today was the live broadcast of the Met Opera’s new production of Die Walkure, the second installment of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The performance was supposed to start at 12:00, so I got to the theater at 11:00am to camp out with everyone else hoping to get prime seats for the performance. (Waiting in line for a Wagner opera is strangely similar to waiting in line for a Harry Potter premier: lots of very enthusiastic fans, including some in costume (yes, there were people with viking helmets on). Unlike Harry Potter, though, most of the people in line were 97 years old.
I managed to snag an awesome seat. The start was delayed by half an hour due to mechanical problems. The set consists of a 45-ton mechanical behemoth of moving levers and platforms. Check it out in this trailer. When the opera you’re seeing is already 6 hours long, the last thing you want to do is add another half-hour; on the other hand, we can’t have the Valkyries getting squished.
Once things got started, though, it was six hours of absolutely astonishing opera. The last Wagner piece I saw was Tristan und Isolde, in London in 2003. All I remember was that the staging was terrible, and the music pretty boring until you got to the transcendent Liebestod at the end. What I saw today was a completely different experience.
Not only am I a more seasoned opera-goer, but I was seeing it done by the best in the world. James Levine conducted, and Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Deborah Voigt (Brunnhilde), Jonas Kaufman (Seigmund), and Eva Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde) were the cast. The music is incredibly beautiful, and the singers executed it with such depth of emotion that I was captivated for the entire performance.
The story is epic and incredibly complicated (think Lord of the Rings on steroids). A synopsis is available here. Since that synopsis focuses only on Die Walkure, I’ll give you some additional background: The god Wotan (married to Fricka) stole a magic golden ring in order to pay some giants to build Valhalla, a palace for the gods. He also had a bunch of children with women other than his wife: With the earth-goddes, he had Brunnhilde, who is immortal, a warrior (Valkyrie), and Wotan’s favorite child. With a mortal woman, Wotan also had twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who are mortal, and who were separated as children. In Die Walkure, Siegmund meets Sieglinde (who is unhappily married to a brute), they fall in love, commit incest/adultery, and run away. Wotan loves Siegmund and promises to protect him by giving him a sword and sending Brunnhilde and her fellow Valkyries to help fight Sieglinde’s husband. But Fricka (goddess of marriage) say absolutely not, because incest and adultery are not okay. Wotan realizes she’s right and tells Brunnhilde to help the angry husband instead so that Siegmund will die. Brunnhilde tells Siegmund that he’s going to die and tries to get him to ditch Sieglinde and come to Valhalla without dying. Siegmund refuses because he loves his sister/wife. Brunnhilde is really touched by this, and so she defies Wotan and protects Siegmund in the battle. Wotan shows up and breaks Siegmund’s sword, so he is killed anyway. Brunnhilde, meanwhile, escapes with Sieglinde and hides her in a forest so that she can have Siegmund’s baby. Wotan, of course, is outraged that Brunnhilde betrayed him, so he banishes her, turns her into a mortal, and condemns her to sleep unarmed and unconscious until some man wakes her up, at which point that man will be her master/husband. Brunnhilde of course is humiliated by the thought that just any man could master her, so she pleads with Wotan to make sure the man is the best hero ever (namely, Siegfried, the baby that Sieglinde is going to have). Because Wotan really loves her, he grants her this wish. So he puts her, unconscious, on top of a rock surrounded by a ring of fire that will kill anyone other than Siegfried. To be continued (in two more 5 or 6 hour operas).
For all the action and the fantastical setting, the emotions are tremendously complex and poignant. Siegmund and Sieglinde love each other so deeply, and they’re so devoted to each other that you want to excuse the adultery and incest. Wotan for all his godly power, is bound by the laws that he himself created, and so is devastated when he realizes that his children, because of the choices they’ve made, must die and never live with him again. The most complicated and beautiful parts surround Brunnhilde. Her devotion to her father, and her decision to betray him, are both awful and completely understandable — because, in siding with Siegmund, she does what everyone in the audience wants her to do, and you can’t help wondering if, deep down, she’s also responding to what Wotan really wants in the deepest part of his heart but isn’t able to do. And poor Wotan, who has no choice but to hug his cherished daughter good-bye, as he gives her the kiss of mortality (which will kill her, eventually), and then to leave her alone and unconscious on a rock! It’s heart-rending!