Last night I watched a complete performance of Die Walküre live for the first time in my life.
This might seem weird to a lot of people with no experience of how an opera singer’s life works. I’ve performed the whole opera more than once, scenes from it many times, and have been covering the role of Wotan during the current run of the Ring cycle at Covent Garden. I’ve also watched its constituent parts, often at some of the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls. If you put together all those bits, you could probably build at least two dozen complete performances, certainly of Acts 2 and 3. And I’ve listened to or watched it on recordings well over a hundred times. But the fact remains, last night was the first time for me head-to-toe in the flesh.
Viewing it in this new context, it struck me that someone sitting through the Ring for the first time might well find it odd that the first instalment, which is tightly wound around the question of the Ring, its creation, ownership and power, is abruptly followed by a kitchen-sink drama about Wotan’s various families in which the Ring seems to play little or no part at all.
What’s crucial I suppose is what happens between Rheingold and Walküre (and overlapping from the last part of the former into the first part of the latter) – much of which we can glean from Siegmund and Sieglinde’s exchanges during Acts 1 and 2, and Wotan’s monologue in Act 2. As a useful exercise to me as a trainee Wotan, and on the off-chance that you might find it interesting, here’s a stab at joining Wagner’s dots.
To recap: during Das Rheingold, Wotan’s lifelong quest for power is intensified to a dangerous extent by the decision to employ the giants to build a castle – as yet unnamed – for the gods, along with Alberich’s recent creation of the Ring. The necessity to pay the builders leads Wotan to commit theft, in violation of his own personal moral code, although not the code of contractual law from which he draws most of his current power. That theft leads to his possession of the Ring, and his being afflicted by its curse – the nature of which is mutable, but at the very least involves an unshakeable obsession with retaining or reclaiming it.
Wotan’s refusal to cede the Ring to the giants as part of the payment for the castle leads the gods to the brink of civil war. At which point Erda intervenes – an extraordinary, almost certainly unprecedented act for her, emphasising how extreme the danger is at this point. She tells Wotan two things: that the gods are not immortal, and that he should cede ownership of the Ring. (N.B. but not that the latter will avoid the former.)
The news of his own mortality is a shocking revelation to Wotan, as it would be to anyone. (Rosencrantz: “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory.”) It – and its consequent valedictory from Erda, “sinn’ in Sorg’ und Furcht!” – is the turning point in his life, his character arc. Does he feel those things in that instant, to their full effect? I suspect not – it’s the murder of Fasolt by Fafner, and the realisation that he was moments away from a similar act of familicide himself – that twists the knife of fear which Erda has placed in his heart. (“Urwissend stachest du einst der Sorge Stachel in Wotans wagendes Herz” – Siegfried Act 3 Sc 1)
Either way, he is now gripped by fear (“Sorg und furcht fesseln den Sinn”) from this point on through the rest of the cycle – right up until “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” at the end of Götterdämmerung – and it is the most fundamental driving factor in all his subsequent actions, despite his best efforts.
“Abdendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” (Rheingold Sc 4) is therefore a soliloquy on how fundamentally Wotan has changed from the start of Scene 2 (“Von Morgen”) to this point at the end of the opera (“bis Abend”) – a change from a state which has remained essentially the same for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Deep down he realises that the construction of this place was a terrible mistake, and the price was not worth paying. He senses the forces of darkness closing in on him – whether these are real or perceived, internal or external, is very much open to question – and he is seized by his habitual politician’s logic. (Sir Humphrey Appleby: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it.”)
Enter the sword motif. (“So grüss’ ich die Burg” – Das Rheingold Sc 4) The obvious implication is that in this moment the idea of Siegmund occurs to him – perhaps it does, but subsequent events seem to imply that the detailed version is some way off. More likely is that at this point it’s a more general idea of war, strife and conflict as a means to defend the gods and reclaim the Ring. (“die solltet zu Sturm und Streit ihr nun stacheln, ihre Kraft reizen zu rauhem Krieg” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2) This leads Wotan to name the castle: Walhall. (Keith Warner points out that this is deliberately not a straight translation of “Valhalla” – the implication being that this castle will not be a luxurious palace, but a fortress, a military stronghold.)
They are going to war.
But against whom? At this point it doesn’t matter – the aim is to train and test the mettle of humans, to select the strongest as the heroes who will defend Walhall against any potential invasion. The God of Justice, Honour and Integrity has become a God of War.
But he is still a god gripped by fear, and this draws him to seek out Erda (“wie sie zu enden, lehre mich Erda: zu ihr muss ich hinab!” – Das Rheingold Sc4).
(Is there something else too? ”Von der Liebe doch mocht’ ich nicht lassen, in der Macht verlangt’ ich nach Minne.” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2. Since it doesn’t link directly to his lines about Erda, perhaps this is more of a wider explanation for his extra-marital affairs, which would certainly seem to support the idea of his marriage to Fricka being primarily motivated by power, not love.)
It’s clear that he gleans a lot more from Erda during this second encounter, which occurs at some point between the events of Rheingold and Walküre, (e.g. “jetzt versteh’ ich den stummen Sinn des wilden Wortes der Wala” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2), and also that Erda gives birth to Brünnhilde as a result.
And also the other Valkyries? Maybe or maybe not – since Wagner doesn’t provide any specific information on that one way or the other, we infer that he didn’t think it mattered, or wanted us to speculate endlessly about it, or possibly both. Either way, Brünnhilde is clearly exceptional amongst the Valkyries, perhaps because of her mother, perhaps because she’s the first-born, perhaps because Wotan is increasingly aware that the Valkyries and their hero-gathering are not the answer to his problems – and in fact may even be intensifying the danger, by providing Alberich with a ready-made army to control should he regain the Ring. (“der Helden Muth entwendet’ er mir, die Kühnen selber zwäng er zum Kampf, mit ihrer Kraft bekriegte er mich.” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2)
(Is this sudden – and as far as we know, entirely new – urge to beget offspring also a result of the revelation of his mortality? Hell of a coincidence if not.)
It seems that all roads keep leading back to the need for Wotan to regain the Ring. (One could argue that this is the curse exerting its influence, or possibly that the ‘curse’ itself is just a logical extension of the existence of an object that powerful.) But since Fafner gained the Ring directly from Wotan as payment for a fulfilled contract, Wotan can’t retake it from Fafner by force without destroying the basis of his own power by breaking a contract. (“Was mit den Trotz’gen einst du vertragen, dess’ Runen wahrt noch heut’ deines Speeres herrischer Schaft: nicht du darfst, was als Zoll du gezahlt, den Riesen wieder entreißen: du selbst zerspelltest deines Speeres Schaft; in deiner Hand der herrische Stab, der starke, zerstiebte wie Spreu’!” – Siegfried Act 2 Sc 1)
For me it’s an important parameter at several points in the cycle that Wotan could kill Fafner very easily. During Rheingold he doesn’t fear the giants in their normal form, nor Alberich as a Tarnhelm-induced dragon; he kills the fearsome Hunding with the merest flick of an eyelid – the spear makes him essentially physically invincible. And yet he won’t go near Fafner’s cave. (“ihn scheut’ der Mächt’ge, und meidet den Ort.” – Die Walküre, Act 3 Sc 1) Why? Because he fears the consequences of a confrontation with Fafner – that he might be tempted to reclaim the Ring by force, thus undermining the basis of his own power, and effectively bringing the gods’ reign to an end, in the same way that later, as Fricka points out, allowing Siegmund to liberate Sieglinde by killing Hunding would.
So Wotan needs someone to do the dirty work for him – and this agent needs to be very clearly not acting for him – in other words, not merely a blindly obedient extension of his will, in the way that e.g. Brünnhilde and the other Valkyries are, since that would effectively be the same as Wotan killing Fafner himself.
How does he set about creating this free agent? To begin with, he chooses a mortal woman as his mother. (We infer therefore that, even if the other Valkyries are not the offspring of Erda, their mothers must surely by goddesses of some sort.) He then loads Siegmund with the burden of every possible earthly misfortune, including the loss of both parents and his sister. And before abandoning him, he instils in him the practice of defying all society’s laws and norms – the laws and norms of the gods. (“Ich weiss ein wildes Geschlecht, nicht heilig ist ihm was andern hehr:” – Die Walküre Act 1 Sc 2; “gegen der Götter Rath reizte kühn ich ihn auf” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 2)
Surely this man could not possibly be said to be acting as an extension of the will of the gods, when his behaviour is constantly in direct opposition to their long-established desires and intentions?
This is an argument which is, of course, easily demolished by Fricka. (“Du schufst ihm die Noth” – Die Walküre Act 2 Sc 1; “So leicht ja entfrug mir Fricka den Trug” – Act 2 Sc 2) Furthermore, it’s the mortal nature of Mrs Wälsung which seems to be what really provokes Fricka’s ire (“da zu niedrigster Schmach du dich neigtest, gemeiner Menschen ein Paar zu erzeugen” – Act 2 Sc 1) – even though it’s the moral outrage of incest which gives her the opportunity to intercede on the moral high ground.
In other words, Wotan’s Project Siegmund is undone by the combination of the (necessary) fact of him having a mortal mother, and the (unintended, and unnecessary to the project) existence of a twin sister. That is to say that if Mrs W had given birth to Siegmund alone, then Fricka would still be irate, but wouldn’t have had this opportunity to intervene.
And so what was conceived by Wotan, at and beyond the end of Das Rheingold, as an epic project to reclaim the Ring and safeguard the future of the gods, is undone by the specific human details of the project’s mechanics. The train of power derailed by love. And that’s why, at the beginning of Die Walküre, we’re suddenly in a very different world to that of Das Rheingold – zoomed in on the human consequences of the power games of those above.
(Footnote: why does it have to be Siegmund and not Sieglinde? If their mother had given birth to several girls one by one, would Wotan have kept going, Henry VIII-style, until he gained a son? Why Luke and not Leia? The irony being that of course the answer to Wotan’s urgent question of who is the free spirit who will return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens is under his nose all the time – just that she happens to be female.)