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La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Die Walküre

Musical synopsis with Alain Altinoglu

Marie Mergeay, Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
8 min.

The saga of the Ring continues... Read the full synopsis of Die Walküre and listen to some of the work’s musical highlights, selected and illuminated by conductor Alain Altinoglu.

Prior history

At the heart of the battle raging between the gods, the Nibelungen and the giants is the ring that grants the power to rule the world. Alberich, who renounced love to get his hands on the Rhinegold, put a curse on the ring he forged from it: anyone who does not have the ring will long to get hold of it, while he who possesses it will perish.

The gods now live in Valhalla, but the giant Fafner poses a threat to their supremacy: indeed, after killing his brother, Fafner became the sole possessor of the ring. Using the magical Tarnhelm, he has turned himself into an invincible dragon that guards the Nibelungen treasure deep in the forest.

Seeking answers about the fate of the world, the supreme god Wotan visited Erda, the primordial mother, with whom he has fathered Brünnhilde. Like the other Valkyries, Brünnhilde gathers the heroes who have fallen on the battlefield and brings them to Valhalla to protect the castle. For a long time, Wotan also roamed the earth as ‘Wolfe’. His love for a mortal woman produced Siegmund and Sieglinde, twins who were separated at an early age. Wotan cherishes the hope that a hero from among that offspring will one day get the ring back from Fafner.

Act One

Alain Altinoglu’s first visit to Bayreuth

This introduction carries great personal resonance for me. I had just turned 19 when I first went to Bayreuth. Nora [Gubisch] was taking part in a singing competition there when Die Walküre was on, but we didn’t have tickets for the performance. An hour before the closing of the doors, a man outside the theatre offered us tickets for 50 marks. Thinking he was pulling a scam, we went to the box office, where the clerk explained that tickets had to be booked eight years in advance. So we headed out again to look for the man. We found him half an hour before the start of the show, but now he was selling the tickets for 500 marks. In despair, we returned to the box office and there, by a stroke of luck, two seats became available in the middle of the auditorium. I knew nothing of the Bayreuth ritual: the wooden seats, the warmth, the formal seating of the audience row by row, the locking of the doors, etc. The lights went out in absolute silence. And then, out of nowhere (the orchestra not being visible in this hall), the storm that is Die Walküre erupted. What a shock! It so gripped me that it brought tears to my eyes. I still think about that moment when I listen to that passage.

Injured and exhausted, a stranger arrives in a raging storm at Hunding’s home. Hunding’s wife, Sieglinde, who is there alone, welcomes the unarmed man, unaware that he is her brother, Siegmund. She is clearly moved by the fate of this stranger who calls himself Wehwahlt (literally, destined for sorrow). Although Wehwahlt fears that his presence will bring disaster on the house, he decides to wait for Hunding: like Sieglinde, he feels a deep sense of connection.

Hunding, of the Neiding race, returns home after a fruitless manhunt for a fugitive in the forest. He offers the stranger hospitality, but rather reluctantly. It strikes him that the man bears a strong resemblance to his wife. Siegmund, who again introduces himself as Wehwahlt, then shares his story: Returning home one day from a hunting party with his father, he found their house burned down. His mother had been killed and his twin sister abducted. He then lived for a long time in the forest with his father, hunted down like a wolf and his wolverine. Eventually, during a fight with the Neidingen, Siegmund got separated from his father. Since then his life has been plagued by calamity. Lately, for instance, he stood up for a young woman who was being married off against her will, killing several of her kin. He was then forced to flee, unarmed.

Upon hearing this account, Hunding understands that this stranger is the fugitive he was chasing in the forest. The rules of hospitality dictate that Siegmund may spend the night in the house, but in the morning he will have to face Hunding in a duel. Sieglinde puts a sleeping potion in Hunding’s drink and withdraws for the night. Left alone, Siegmund realizes that he feels irrevocably drawn to Sieglinde.

Thanks to the sleeping potion, Hunding sleeps soundly. Sieglinde returns to Siegmund and tells him about the sword that was thrust into a tree trunk by a stranger on the day of her forced marriage to Hunding. Siegmund knows at once that this is the sword his father promised he would find in times of need; he also knows that Sieglinde will be his wife. Both feel they are destined for each other and realize they are brother and sister. Sieglinde calls him Siegmund. He then draws from the tree trunk the sword that will free him, Nothung. Now Sieglinde and Siegmund belong to each other: ‘Wife and sister you’ll be to your brother – so let the blood of the Wälsungs blossom!’ They leave together.

Act Two

Wotan summons his daughter Brünnhilde to assist him in the impending clash between Siegmund, his son, and Hunding. He asks her to deliver victory to Siegmund. Once Brünnhilde has left to prepare for the fight, Fricka addresses Wotan. As the goddess of marital fidelity, she demands that Wotan respect Hunding’s marital rights. To her it is unthinkable that the supreme god would protect a couple that is at once adulterous and incestuous. Wotan defends their love on the grounds of its purity and suggests that Siegmund is the hero who can help the gods trick Fafner out of the ring. But Fricka is unyielding and demands that Brünnhilde not intervene. Wotan promises Fricka that Siegmund will die.

Having readied herself for the battle, Brünnhilde now finds her father in a state of despair. He tells her everything: how the Rhinegold was stolen, how Alberich got hold of the ring through cunning and how he put a curse on it … and also how he forced Erda to answer his questions about the fate of the world and how he fathered Brünnhilde with her. Together with the other Valkyries, Brünnhilde must prevent Erda’s prediction about the fall of the gods from coming true. But even so, a new confrontation with Alberich is imminent and Wotan is bound by his pact with Fafner. He can’t steal the ring back himself: for that, he needs a hero who will recover it on his own initiative. Siegmund could have been that hero, but Wotan’s hopes in that respect have now been dashed. Moreover, he has learned that Alberich has produced a descendant: Alberich will therefore be able to pass on his longing for revenge to the next generation. For her part, Brünnhilde simply cannot understand that her father, with whom she feels a deep bond, has instructed her not to side with his son Siegmund in battle, but with Hunding.

In the meantime, Siegmund and Sieglinde are still on the run. Exhausted, the young woman shouts out the horror and helplessness she felt at having had to give herself to Hunding, whom she never loved. Siegmund tries to comfort her before sleep comes over her. Brünnhilde then arrives to tell him that, following Wotan’s orders, he is going to be killed on the battlefield and will be taken to Valhalla. Siegmund refuses his fate, however, and threatens to kill himself with Sieglinde. Deeply moved by Siegmund’s determination and his love for Sieglinde, Brünnhilde decides not to follow Wotan’s command and to defend Siegmund. Thanks to her, the fight initially seems to go in his favour, but Wotan intervenes, breaking Siegmund’s sword. Hunding then kills Siegmund. Brünnhilde escapes with Sieglinde, taking the broken sword with her. Filled with contempt, Wotan slays Hunding before chasing after Brünnhilde: he will have to punish her for disobeying him.

INTERPRETING CONTRASTS

Alain Altinoglu: Die Walküre is sometimes remembered for its more tumultuous orchestral parts, particularly the opening of the three acts. But the score really contains many nuanced dramatic exchanges between two characters, whether a couple of lovers, a father and daughter, rivals, or two spouses. These dialogues contain as much ecstasy, anger and intensity as they do tenderness and delicacy. In these passages, the orchestra supports this variety with great precision, almost like chamber music. As a conductor, you have to maintain what I call ‘the overall architecture’, which will distinguish the general reading of the work: for example, faster, slower, more analytical, with greater emotion … But at the same time, within that framework, you also have to be able to adapt to the specific atmosphere at the heart of each scene and to the specific needs of the performers. Every singer breathes differently, for example. It is the text that guides me, always: am I giving the singer the ideal conditions for his or her words to be intelligible and for his or her voice to come through properly? I attach great importance to this.

Act Three

The Valkyries gather to bring the fallen heroes to Valhalla. They are surprised to see Brünnhilde arrive not with a man, but with a woman, Sieglinde. When they learn that Brünnhilde is on the run from Wotan, the Valkyries initially refuse to help them. Exhausted and tormented, Sieglinde is ready to die, but Brünnhilde tells her that she is pregnant with Siegmund’s child, who will be named Siegfried. This gives Sieglinde renewed strength: she picks up the pieces of the sword, thanks the Valkyrie and flees alone.

When Wotan bursts in, the other Valkyries try to hide Brünnhilde, but the supreme god is beside himself and demands that Brünnhilde show herself. By going against his command, he tells her, she gave up his protection: she will no longer be a half-god Valkyrie, but a mere mortal. Visibly scared, Brünnhilde tries to convince Wotan of her good intentions: by ignoring his command, she was actually complying with his deepest wishes. Wotan observes bitterly that he has once again been trapped, but he refuses to give in. Because Brünnhilde chose love, she is no longer welcome at Valhalla. She is banished to a rocky outcrop where she will sleep until a mortal man awakens her. She begs her father to build a circle of fire around her that only the bravest hero can cross. As he says goodbye to his precious daughter, Wotan is deeply moved: ‘Farewell, thou valiant, glorious child! [...] – whom I loved so...’ He then summons Loge, the fire god, to protect Brünnhilde with a ring of fire as she sleeps. Anyone who fears his spear, Wotan concludes, will not get past the flames.