In short, Act II is where things get crazy.
As it begins, Wotan and Fricka have returned, their storyline picking up where we left off at the end of Das Rheingold. As in the production of the first opera in this cycle, their godhood is signified by the fact that the singers who portray them are suspended in the air by cranes.
Here Wotan is figured as the lord of treaties, while Fricka is the lord of wedlock, and Fricka’s angry because of the adulterous goings-on between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I. She is willing to call their incestuous relationship by its name and is horrified by it, whereas Wotan, rather shiftily and expediently, suggests that love in all its forms is stronger than mere law and taboo, and so Fricka’s handwringing is unjustified.
At one point during the argument between Wotan and Fricka, the cranes that hold them aloft are lowered, and they step off the platforms so that they can walk around the stage freely. When watching this company’s staging of Das Rheingold, I thought the cranes were a great, imaginative idea; I have to say, though, that when temporarily freed of her crane, the singer performing Fricka, Anna Larsson, really took the brief opportunity to control the stage. Her aggressive, flirtatious body movements and facial gestures took what could easily read as a thankless part on paper—a scorned woman incessantly berating the husband who’s cheated on her again and again—and turned it into something more, investing Fricka with a smoldering sexuality even as she verbally emasculates Wotan. I was almost sad to see Larsson have to fasten herself back into the crane again, to be lifted into the air and carried offstage.
The second section of this act involves Wotan and Brünnhilde on stage together, and here’s where the plot gets crazily complicated. Honestly—even though this isn’t my first time through the Ring, I’m not sure I caught all the nuances. I’m not sure that the narrative hangs together completely anyway, but since when was tight plotting the first concern of opera?
If in most operas the aria is a form that’s usually used to portray an emotion, here we’re treated to a strange instance of aria as exposition. As Brünnhilde listens attentively, Wotan sings, and sings, and sings some more, first recapitulating the entire plot of Das Rheingold—the theft of the gold from the Rhinemaidens; the forging of the ring; its subsequent fate—and then filling in the rest of the events between Das Rheingold and Die Walküre.
In the period between the first and second opera, Alberich, the dwarf who once forged the Ring of the Nibelung, has amassed an army, and is now making preparations to march on Valhalla. Wotan has been preparing for this by filling Valhalla with heroes, harvested from the living by the Valkyries, his daughters by Erda (who gave that chilling warning about the coming end of things at the end of Das Rheingold). But if Alberich gets his hands on the ring of ultimate power, Wotan and company are done for, no matter how many heroes he has. So Wotan must acquire the ring first.
Unfortunately for Wotan, being the lord of treaties means that he, above all, is bound by treaties—even though he cut the Ring off Alberich’s hand himself, he can’t just steal it from Fafnir, one of the two giants who acquired the ring in trade for the construction of Valhalla. (Fafnir has since killed his brother Fasolt, and now keeps the ring for himself.) The ring has to somehow find its way to Wotan by accident. And so Wotan’s extraordinarily convoluted method of encouraging that accident to happen is to father Siegmund and Sieglinde by a mortal woman, also leaving a magic sword in an ash tree where Siegmund might conveniently discover it (and then, presumably, decide to slay Fafnir and take the Ring, instead of doing one of a million other things that one might choose to do with a magic sword). The reasoning behind this sounds as absurd and transparent to Fricka as it does to the audience—she calls Wotan out on it, and after Wotan admits to his self-deception regarding Siegmund’s free will (or lack thereof), he feels that his only choice is to allow his son Siegmund to die at Sieglinde’s husband Hunding’s hand.
Now then. In the third part of Act II we return to Siegmund and Sieglinde, having temporarily escaped from Hunding—driven mad by fear for her fate, Sieglinde collapses into a deep sleep, and it’s then that Brünnhilde appears to notify Siegmund that he’s marked for death (and in a beautiful moment during this staging she literally marks him for death, smearing deep blue paint on his forehead and cheeks and hands that begins to run down Siegmund’s face). But Siegmund refuses to leave for Valhalla if it means abandoning his sister and bride on earth, especially since she’s—surprise—now pregnant. As Siegmund prepares to slay his sleeping sister, Brünnhilde, touched by this display of love, relents and stops him. He will have his victory against Hunding, she says, and she’ll deal with Wotan’s anger, somehow.
Wotan, however, isn’t having this. When Hunding finally appears, Siegmund suddenly finds that his sword is deprived of its power. Without that, Hunding (the only person on stage at this moment who isn’t related to Wotan) finishes off Siegmund easily, but Brünnhilde escapes with Sieglinde just before Wotan arrives. With a gesture of contempt, Wotan kills Hunding (and Juha Uusitalio pulls this off perfectly, snarling the word that drops Hunding dead rather than singing it), and then chases after Brünnhilde in pursuit.
Is that one of the most densely plotted acts of an opera I can think of offhand? I think maybe it is—all that storytelling is done with only about 100 minutes’ worth of singing. But later on in the cycle, if memory serves, the narrative becomes even more complicated.
Next: Act III.