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Operapedia: Die Walküre 

Henry Stewart gets down, down, down with Wagner’s burning ring of fire.

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First Performances

For two decades, Wagner reworked his idea for an opera about the death of the hero Siegfried into an epic tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung. Walküre, the second part, about Siegfried’s conception, had its premiere in Munich, in June 1870. Wagner had hoped to open all four at a special theater he planned in Bayreuth, but his patron, Bavarian King Ludwig II, “had paid the composer for these operas and wanted to see them as soon as they were completed,” John Louis DiGaetani writes in Richard Wagner, “and he wanted to see them in his own capital, Munich.” The complete cycle was first performed in August 1876 at Bayreuth, in Wagner’s opera dreamhouse, financed with loans from Ludwig; its annual Wagner festival is now a Mecca for fans.

Reactions

The first two Ring operas were ambivalently received at their Munich premieres; the well-attended Bayreuth premiere was more auspicious. The cast was reportedly superb; “the first violinist … was applauded whenever he was seen in the streets,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1940. But detractors persisted. “We will never overcome the moral repulsion of so ecstatic a revelation of incest,” wrote critic Eduard Hanslick, who had been mentioned by name in Wagner’s bigoted essay “Judaism in Music,” which Wagner had reissued, under his own name, in 1869. Such anti-Semitism tars Wagner’s musical and theatrical legacies and is compounded by Hitler’s close association with Wagner’s daughter-in-law, Winifred, who ran Bayreuth from 1930 to 1945.
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The Plot Thickens

Wagner often referenced what we know as Arthurian legend—because the myths of Europe could be as incestuous as a couple of Wagner characters. His Parsifal centered on the knights of the grail; his version of the Tristan and Isolde story resembles that of Guinevere and Lancelot. The Ring was based on old German, Norse and Icelandic legends, but Walküre includes an Arthurian touch—a special sword stuck, well, not in a stone, but in a tree. (Close enough!) Only a special hero (in this case, Siegmund) can dislodge it—a moment memorably illustrated by Arthur Rackham, who drew dozens of scenes from the operas to accompany an English translation of Wagner’s librettos.


 

In Pop Culture

In an iconic Maxell commercial from the 1980s, a butler places an audio cassette in a stereo, hits play, and “The Ride of the Valkyries” comes blasting out in waves of such high-fidelity sound that it blows back the hair and tie of the man sitting down to listen—along with his lampshade and his glass of wine (or, in the original print ad, his martini). When I went to watch this ad on YouTube, I was first shown an ad for Leinenkugel’s shandy beer, which also used “The Ride of Valkyries,” testifying to the campaign’s lingering influence—and the endurance of Wagner’s music, albeit for crass commerce.    

Time and Place

Wagner’s many trips to the Alps, beginning in 1849, would inspire Die Walküre, from Siegmund’s Act I passage about the setting sun to the cragged terrain of Acts II and III. Wagner’s “desire to withdraw to a secluded mountain wilderness brings to our mind the situation at the beginning of the second act of Die Walküre,” OPERA NEWS noted in 1947, “when [the god] Wotan has to face [his wife] Fricka’s complaint that he is hiding himself in the mountains to shun the eyes of his wife”—like Wagner, whose relationship with his first wife, Minna, was strained. He took several Alpine excursions without her before their inevitable split.

Something Completely Different

In Ken Russell’s characteristically bonkers Mahler (1974), that composer’s conversion to Catholicism is depicted as a mountaintop fantasy in the style of a silent movie, featuring Wagner’s second wife, Cosima, played by Antonia Ellis as a sort of sexy Valkyrie/Nazi. The last minute of this head-scratching scene gives “The Ride of the Valkyries” English lyrics, such as “No longer a Jew-boy / Winning strength through joy / You’re one of us now / Now you’re a goy!”
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The Performance We Wish We’d Seen

Patrice Chéreau devised a legendarily controversial production of the Ring for its centenary at Bayreuth that dispensed with the fairytale setting, instead accentuating the socialist, industrial-era allegories George Bernard Shaw identifies in his 1898 book, The Perfect Wagnerite. “There were death threats and bomb threats; friendships and marriages were said to have been broken,” Frederic Spotts writes in Bayreuth. A “woman had her earring torn off—and the earlobe with it.” Yet four years later, the final performance received a forty-five-minute ovation.

The Basics

The gods try to break up an incestuous romance. But a goddess takes pity on the lovers and tries to intervene, for which she’s punished—setting off about nine more hours of music.

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Hit Tune

The martial horn theme of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which opens Act III, is at once blood-chilling and battle-rousing. That duality emerges in Apocalypse Now, when “The Ride” accompanies an American attack on a Vietnamese village. The scene “came from a vision I had of the exhilaration of war—right alongside the terror and the horror and the fear of being snuffed out,” screenwriter John Milius once told Harper’s. It also evoked The Birth of a Nation, in which director D. W. Griffith employed the “Ride” (in his preferred score) over images of the equestrian Klan galloping into battle.

Where It Is This Season

Twelve productions have been announced through June, including a much-anticipated production in Chicago in November and a Ring cycle this month at Bayreuth.

 

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Perennial Favorite

At the end of the opera, the title’s Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, has disobeyed her father, Wotan, who punishes her by making her human and placing her under a sleeping spell—encircled by fire, at her request, so she can be awakened only by someone courageous, not just some mountain-wandering schmo. The “Magic Fire Music” that accompanies this supremely moving act is by turns, then simultaneously, violently bitter and sprightly. In L.A. Confidential, it’s heard in a house that a police officer, played by Russell Crowe, breaks into so he can, in rather Wagnerian fashion, “rescue a kidnapped woman and slay the dragon-like thug holding her,” Ken Wlaschin writes in Encyclopedia of Opera on Screenspacer 


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