Blogging Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Die Walküre, Act III

After the labyrinthine plotting of Act II, Act III of Die Walküre streamlines the narrative down to its bare essentials: the conflict between Wotan and his wayward daughter Brünnhilde.

First, though, we have the part you paid your hard-earned money to hear, the Ride of the Valkyries, the “kill the wabbit” part, the Apocalypse Now part.* During this sequence, the eight women singing the Valkyrie parts all appear to be having the time of their lives. Brünnhilde shows up late to the party, however, with Sieglinde in tow, and the joy of the Valkyries turns to consternation when they find out what she was up to in Act II.

When commenting on my post on Act II, G-Campbell noted that I hadn’t mentioned Brünnhilde’s costume! And now in Act III there are nine of them, so we should talk about the Valkyries’ costumes.

This production is strongly visual, and so we can safely assume that it’s cast for looks as well as talent. So it’s hard to avoid noting that whereas the other women we’ve seen on stage during the cycle tend toward slenderness, almost all of the Valkyries, Brünnhilde included, are stout, or big-boned, or however you’d like to put it. (There’s one thin one, but she really looks like the odd woman out.) In addition, though their costumes don’t show much skin (except for their backs, where their names are tattooed in High German script), they have plastic shields on their chests that strongly accentuate the shapes of their bosoms. It’s an interesting set of aesthetic decisions, though to me they seem to connote a certain threatening strength that is rooted in the Valkyries’ femininity, rather than an overt sexuality: Fricka, in Act II, seemed more strongly sexualized to me, as did the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold. (Though in my reading, at least so far, Fricka and the Rhinemaidens both emasculate the men they share scenes with, whereas the Valkyries, in this moment, have the stage to themselves, with no men to be seen. So… it’s complicated.)

I should say that I’m not quite sure what was going on with the staging of this opening section. When the curtain rises, and throughout the Ride of the Valkyries segment, we see the bob of a giant pendulum hanging from the ceiling, swinging back and forth with dozens of acrobats clinging to it, their postures and facial expressions suggesting sleep or death. I understand that at this moment the Valkyries are meant to be harvesting fallen heroes to escort to Valhalla, but I’m not sure what this extra stage element, beautiful, complicated, and seemingly dangerous as it is, has to do with anything. For me this alternative staging of the Ring cycle has been most successful when the SF and surreal imagery is used to comment on more traditional versions of the original work—here, this just seems like weirdness for its own sake. But maybe I’m missing the point.

At any rate, eventually the gigantic swinging pendulum returns from where it came, and though the other Valkyries refuse to shelter Sieglinde, Brünnhilde gives her the shattered pieces of Wotan’s sword and christens her unborn son Siegfried (and the leitmotif introduced here is one we’ll hear often in the third opera in the cycle—notice that it’s also quite close to the Force Theme from Star Wars). Sieglinde escapes, conveniently, to a nearby forest where the giant Fafner (who, we’re told, has used the ring’s power to transform himself into a dragon) sits atop his hoard of treasure—the thought is that the enraged Wotan won’t follow her there.

Once Wotan arrives, and after a ranting monologue with traces of misogyny, he curses Brünnhilde, and the nature of the curse strips her, tragically, of her independence and equality. She’ll be placed in a deep sleep, and she’ll have to marry and obey the first man who finds her and wakes her: not only will she not have a say in who she marries, but whoever her future husband is will be determined not by any sort of merit, but essentially by random chance. The other eight Valkyries (who, we can assume, comprise a sisterhood of cheerful singletons) are revolted by this idea, but nonetheless abandon Brünnhilde after Wotan’s threat to lay the same curse on them.

We then see several minutes’ worth of begging and pleading on Brünnhilde’s part that is somewhat painful to watch (not because of the quality of the performance in this particular instance—Jennifer Wilson is great here—but because it’s tough to see this woman, whose character we’ve become invested in, brought low and not deserving it). Brünnhilde’s argument, though heartfelt, is also complex and thorny, relating back to Fricka’s claim in Act II that even though Wotan claims that Siegmund had free will, he was still under Wotan’s direct influence, even if Wotan didn’t want to admit that himself. Brünnhilde’s claim is that in disobeying Wotan’s explicit instructions, she was in fact carrying out his real wishes: in other words, Brünnhilde exercises her free will and ends up doing what Wotan would have willed her to do anyway, had he himself been able to exercise his own free will instead of obeying Fricka, and as a result Brünnhilde will essentially lose her free will as an unjust punishment.

So Wotan relents somewhat. Brünnhilde will still become a sleeping beauty, but she’ll be surrounded by a ring of fire (which in this staging is economically represented by a group of people who surround Brünnhilde in a circle, holding torches) and only the worthiest of heroes, one with a true will of his own, obedient to no one (unlike Siegmund, who can perhaps be seen as Wotan’s first failed experiment), will be able to enter the ring and free her from her slumber.

And so the opera ends on an honest-to-goodness cliffhanger. But from the title of the next opera, it’s a safe guess who the hero who rescues Brünnhilde will be.

Next: Siegfried, Act I.

*Much like Wagner’s music itself, that scene from Apocalypse Now can suffer mis-readings when removed from its original context. One of the most chilling scenes in Sam Mendes’ film Jarhead depicts a group of young Marines watching this scene in a theater and cheering at completely inappropriate times. In what is probably not a pure coincidence, both Apocalypse Now and Jarhead were cut by the same editor, Walter Murch.

Dexter Palmer is the author of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, available from St. Martin’s Press. (Check out the book’s online gallery.)


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