Richard Wagner conceived his Ring Cycle to occur in a festival setting over three days, with a preliminary opera, Das Rheingold, to play the night before as a means of getting the audience up to speed with the backstory. Die Walküre is, therefore, technically the first opera in the cycle. It contains the most famous music – namely the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, immortalised in popular culture via Bugs Bunny as much as Francis Ford Coppola. It also introduces the heroine, Brünnhilde. The hero will have to wait his turn, appearing as the eponymous character in the next opera, Siegfried.
Die Walküre opens on a house revolving gently under a heavy fall of snow, like something from a fairy tale. A stranger approaches, wounded and desperate for shelter. The mistress of the house lets him in, and gradually the two realise something profound has occurred. This is Siegmund (Bradley Daley) and Sieglinde (Amber Wagner), twin children of Wotan (James Johnson) and husband and wife before the end of the act. Unless her current husband, Hunding (Jud Arthur) has his way.
This remarkable three-person mini-drama, with incestuous love as its engine, seems as brazen now as it must have on its premiere back in 1876. The exact moments the twins realise that they are in love and also brother and sister are difficult to pin down precisely; the music is so encompassing of their sorrow and yearning that it becomes impossible to resist the sensation that they are meant to be together, that there is something preordained about it. It’s startling proof of art’s transcendent power over morality, and a perfect demonstration of the central theme of the whole cycle: love surpasses strictures, and humanity cannot be contained.
Wotan knows this better than anyone, and the second act is dedicated to his bind as a god and father. His wife Fricka (Jacqueline Dark) is mortified that Wotan has begot mortal children who are now in love, and demands he kill them. To this end he employs his glorious and warlike daughter Brünnhilde (Lise Lindstrom), one of the Valkyries he has begot through another mother (he’s not the monogamous type). Brünnhilde agrees, but when she actually sees Siegmund and Sieglinde and realises the purity of their love, she disobeys her father, and sets them free. This seals her fate, and subsequently, her father’s.
The final act is a prolonged and heartbreakingly beautiful meditation on parental authority and the child’s need to defy it. Of course, this being Wagner and the most expansive creation myth in all opera, it is about so much more; it’s about humanity’s relationship to the godhead, the inevitability of death and decay, the transforming effect of forgiveness. That director Neil Armfield chooses to stage it entirely in a black box set, with nothing to distract the gaze but the power of the performances, is proof of his confidence in the material and the artists he’s gathered to showcase it.
They are uniformly magnificent. Johnson gains in stature and solemnity with every appearance, even if the voice struggles to match the playing. His Wotan is deeply ambivalent, wearied and resigned but also capable of profound tenderness and compassion. The final twenty minutes, alone with his favourite daughter as he confines her to her prison, is simply unforgettable. Lindstrom is glorious as Brünnhilde, headstrong and mercurial but also pensive and supple. There is a ringing, exalted aspect to her performance, and her voice is winningly warm and penetrating. It bodes well for the long journey to come.
As the twins in love, Daley is superb and Wagner a flat out revelation. They totally hold us enthralled in that first act and their subsequent solos are thrilling and emotionally complex. The only pity is that neither of them appear in the two operas to follow. Arthur is even more impressive as the stalking, vengeful Hunding than he was as the giant Fafner, and Dark is again fantastic as the outwardly impervious but bitterly despairing Fricka. The Valkyries are jaw-dropping, descending from the heavens with voices powerful enough to resurrect the dead.
Robert Cousins’ sets are either wildly spectacular – Act II’s giant revolving ramp stuffed with taxidermy animals is so complex it caused a full hour’s delay on opening night – or, as in the case of Act III’s black box, downright non-existent. Both extremes work wonders. It’s the lack of the World Ash-tree in Act I and a fairly paltry ring of fire around the sleeping Brünnhilde in Act III that somewhat let the piece down. There is a dramaturgical argument for pure symbolism but sometimes the piece calls for pure spectacle too. This line was more confidently walked in Das Rheingold.
It is fascinating to observe the complexities and nuances of Wagner’s masterpiece play out: the vision of a patriarchy slowly and deliberately acceding to the feminine; the gods’ realisation that they serve humanity rather than the other way around; the impossible bind that exists between the will to dominate and the freedom to choose. All to the most immersive, often overwhelmingly and intensely beautiful, music written for the stage. Who’s up for day two, and opera number three?