After a week’s hiatus, I’m back to blogging my way through Wagner’s Ring cycle, picking back up with Act I of the second opera, Die Walküre.
If Das Rheingold is in part about gods whose will is circumscribed by inviolable contracts, Die Walküre begins with men who have their hands tied by the laws of hospitality.
We begin with Siegmund, pursued by unidentified enemies, requesting refuge in the home of Hunding and his wife Sieglinde. In the original libretto the house is built around a giant ash tree, and the production plays up with symbolism of the ash tree as Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse myth. Throughout the act the tree is projected on giant screens at the back of the stage, shifting its color in response to the mood of the music; at one point the tree becomes completely transparent, and we can see twirling strands of DNA climbing up its trunk.
The house here is represented merely as a circle of animal bones laid out on the stage; Sieglinde is dreadlocked and tattooed, with a rope around her neck, shuffling around the stage with body movements that recall a dog that has been beaten into submission. Sieglinde’s husband lumbers about the stage dressed in rags and furs, the sort of costume that TOS-era Star Trek would sometimes use to denote noble savagery.
Siegmund’s arrival in Hunding’s home sets off a chain of coincidences, one on top of another. First, it turns out that the reason the wounded Siegmund needed shelter is because he was escaping from a clan of which he’d just killed two members, since they were trying to marry off a woman against her will. Unfortunately for Siegmund, Hunding is that clan’s kinsman. Hunding promises to kill Siegmund (who is defenseless and weaponless), but only after fulfilling the laws of hospitality, letting him stay the night and rest. Why doesn’t he kill him right there, saving himself the trouble of putting him up for the night? As in Das Rheingold, laws command obedience, even from gods, simply because they are laws.
The second coincidence is that Sieglinde, Hunding’s wife, turns out to be Siegmund’s long-lost twin sister. Over the course of the act they fall deeply in love, a plot development that’s difficult to handle without, say, using the word “incest.” (Coincidentally, the occasionally-sort-of-Wagnerian Star Wars original trilogy has this problem as well.) The director of Die Walküre finesses this by having Siegmund and Sieglinde (before they realize they’re siblings) move intimately close to each other without touching—they’re carefully choreographed so that they seem as if they’re about to embrace or kiss, but never do. Sometimes during the act that intimacy takes on a certain tender oddness—in the original libretto, when the wounded Siegmund enters, Sieglinde brings him a drinking horn; in this version, Sieglinde dips a dreadlocked strand of her hair into a bowl of water, saturates it, then squeezes the water from her hair onto Siegmund’s parched lips.
Near the end of the act, Sieglinde drugs her husband with a laced drink (the use of potions to exert one’s will on another shows up later in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde) and proposes escape to Siegmund. First, though, Siegmund pulls a sword from the ash tree that Sieglinde says was driven into the trunk by a “mysterious stranger” and left there for the person who’s meant to retrieve it. (Who could it be? The leitmotif that plays while Sieglinde tells this story, which also shows up in Das Rheingold, grants a clue.) In one of the more surreal moments of this staging, the leaves of the ash tree turn into the letters of Siegmund’s name, and the tree starts to shed, S’s and M’s and D’s turning end over end as they flutter to the ground.
So Siegmund pulls the sword from the trunk, cheerfully steals his sister away (“Bride and sister/you are to your brother/so let the blood of the Wälsungs blossom!”), and hand in hand they leave Hunding behind as the ash tree suddenly sprouts thousands of green leaves and the season turns to spring.
Next: Act II.