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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

Die Walküre in One Act

MSO visits Wagner’s classic

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If Die Walküre weren’t the centerpiece of Wagner’s great four-part cycle, “The Ring of the Nibelung,” it would still hold its own. One of the world’s great operas, Die Walküre is unsurpassed for the lyrical tenderness imbedded within an eloquent musical fabric that underscores Wagner’s conception of redemption through the healing power of love. As the second of the “Ring” cycle, Walküre departs from the treachery and betrayal of Rheingold, which depicts the struggles of Wotan to erect Walhalla, the new heaven of the pagan gods. Whereas Rheingold deals with the inherent corruption and conflicting motives among the rival gods (not unlike the double-dealing partisan strife of our own time), Walküre brings us back to earth, where motivations are more fragile and vulnerable.

Die Walküre
understandably holds its place as the most popular and frequently performed of the “Ring” cycle, largely because its characters, whether human or immortal, are involved in very human situations. The famous Act 1 love scene dominates the tragedy to follow and poignantly underscores the frailty of forbidden love. The greater conflict underscoring the entire scope of Walküre derives from Wotan’s frustration in confronting the realization that he cannot create a “super race” to forestall the imminent downfall of the immortals within the walls of Walhalla. (Hitler should have paid heed.) Walküre’swarrior maidens are only robotic reflections of Wotan’s will and do not function autonomously.

Wotan’s only hope for Walhalla’s survival depends upon an independent hero such as his offspring Siegmund, born of an earthly mother. For all of its melodic beauty, the first-act encounter of Siegmund and Sieglinde has greater import then their newfound love. The magisterial grandeur of Wagner’s score attests to the mastery with which he combines the lyrical tenderness of first love in Act 1, subtly phrasing the ominous undercurrent of matters yet to come.

Much has been written about the use of “leitmotif” in Wagner. Musicologists consistently frighten music students and intimidate music lovers with the admonition to master recognition of each phrase. Historically, a leitmotif operates like a name tag, defining characters and specific actions. Wagner never used the term himself, preferring to refer to “melodic moments/guides to feeling” that heightened the dynamic flow of the music without being strictly referential or static. It’s very much like modern film music. Act 1 illustrates how a developmental score that transcends the subject matter and creates its own universe, motivating the action beyond its obvious content, profoundly illuminates the simplicity of the action. The great Wagner operas operate like treadmills, stopping and starting, guiding the listener solely with the hypnotic power of the music.

Walküre’s
first act is often performed alone as a self-sustaining concert piece of great lyrical poetry. After a turbulent introduction foreshadowing the tragedy to beset the newfound lovers, flutes, woodwinds and strings elevate the first act to a more ethereal level, underlining the musical progression toward one of the most famous bittersweet love scenes in opera. Sieglinde discovers a handsome, mysterious stranger in her husband’s hut, one whose image closely resembles her own. She will come to realize that the compelling stranger so like herself is her twin brother, Siegmund, who seeks shelter from the storm. Hunding, the husband, realizes something is wrong—the palpably growing attraction between them bodes no good. He offers shelter for one night, after which he and Siegmund must duel.

The ease with which Wagner propels the action with subtle musical variations is highlighted by the rising lyricism of the love music culminating in Sieglinde’s beautiful aria “Du bist der Lenz” (“You are the Spring”). Other motifs hint at scenes yet to come, including a smidgeon of the “Ride of the Valkyries” and a bit of “Magic Fire Music.” Even a touch of musical foreboding from the cycle’s climax, “Götterdämmerung,” though not yet composed, seems present, testifying to the scope of Wagner’s imagination.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart will perform Act 1 of DieWalküre on Feb. 4-5 at Uihlein Hall. Featured will be the voices of Margaret Jane Wray, Clifton Forbis and Andrea Silvestrelli.

Steve Spice has written about culture for the
Shepherd Express and Wisconsin Light.