To be read before
Richard Wagner was born on 22 May 1813 in Leipzig and died on 13 February 1883 in Venice. Alongside Verdi, Wagner is incontestably the other great opera figure of the 19th century. After a difficult start (he was unable to get his first operas, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi and even Der fliegende Holländer performed), Wagner enjoyed some success in Dresden where he was appointed Court Kapellmeister, thanks, in particular, to the first performance of Tannhäuser (1845). However, his participation in the May revolution four years later prevented the performance of Lohengrin in the same city and forced him into exile in Switzerland. Whilst there, he published numerous political and critical texts (including Art and Revolution) but more importantly, he set about composing Der Ring des Nibelungen, on the basis of an outline penned a year earlier. Its composition would take over twenty years, interrupted for a long interlude by the writing of Tristan und Isolde, inspired by his love for Mathilde Wesendonk, and by Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the only one of his later operas with a happy ending. In 1871, with the backing of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner decided to build a theatre of his own design in Bayreuth and dedicated to the performance of his works. It was here that were first performed the complete cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876 and in 1882, Parsifal, his last opera, which constituted his artistic legacy.
Die Walküre, the first day of Der Ring des Nibelungen follows on from the prologue Das Rheingold yet scarcely resembles it. The libretto was written in 1851-52 and the music composed between 1854 and 1856. The work is divided into three acts, each possessing its own very distinct atmosphere. Whilst Das Rheingold concentrated on groups and communities, Die Walküre confronts individuals. The first act brings together three characters: Hunding, Sieglinde, his wife by force, and the man she herself is to baptize Siegmund, her long-lost brother, lover and father-to-be of Siegfried, conceived – as the music indicates – at the end of the act. This first act, which opens with an impressive storm, unfurls in a world of dark shadows and a threatening atmosphere until brother and sister are reunited. At this moment ecstatic spring invades the stage in music steeped in a rare eroticism. The second act, where Wotan and Fricka return, introduces the character of Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie, and daughter of Wotan and Erda. This fascinating second act is set both in the mists of Valhalla and on the desolate surface of the Earth. It opens with two extensive monologues from Fricka and Wotan, expressing their solitude, and continues with two very different duos: the first a nightmarish one between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the second solemn and heroic between Siegmund and Brünnhilde. The third act opens to the famous Ride of the Valkyries, the eight sisters of Wotan’s favourite, Brünnhilde. The act is dominated by a grandiose duo between the father and the daughter, who has betrayed him. It ends on an emotional farewell, one of the most essentially lyrical scenes in all Wagner’s work.
The first performance
Die Walküre was first performed on 26 June 1870 at the Königliches Hof und National Theater in Munich. The première of the entire cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen took place in Bayreuth in August 1876.
The work at the Paris Opera
Die Walküre was first performed in France at the Palais Garnier on 12 May 1893 in a French version by Victor Wilder. The work would be performed more than 500 times up until 1978. 1948 saw a new production by Pierre Chéreau. Great artists to have performed the work on the stage of the Palais Garnier include Lauritz Melchior, Max Lorenz (Siegmund), Leonie Rysanek, Régine Crespin (Sieglinde), Kirsten Flagstad, Astrid Varnay, Martha Mödl (Brünnhilde), Rita Gorr, Hèlène Bouvier, Denise Scharley (Fricka), Sigurd Björling, Hans Hotter (Wotan). In 1967 and 1971, a production from Bayreuth by Wieland Wagner starred Jess Thomas / Jean Cox (Siegmund), Régine Crespin (Sieglinde), Anja Silja / Berit Lindholm (Brunnhilde), Michèle Vilma (Fricka), Theo Adam / Hans Hotter (Wotan). Incidentally, it was with a performance of Die Walküre at the Paris Opera that Hans Hotter made his last stage appearance on 29 June 1972. In 1976, a new production by Klaus Michael Gruber (sets by Eduardo Arroyo, costumes by Moidele Bickel) brought together Peter Hoffmann, Helga Dernesch, Gwyneth Jones, Christa Ludwig, Theo Adam, under the direction of Sir Georg Solti. This production was revived in 1978 with Robert Schunk, Arlene Saunders, Roberta Knie, Christa Ludwig, Franz Mazura, conducted by Rolf Reuter.