Join us on Saturday, 16 May as we partner with our colleagues at Colorado MahlerFest for a webcast of our 2019 performance of Act One of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Recorded live in Worcester’s Swan Theatre, the cast includes Stacey Rishoi and Sieglinde, Brennen Guillory as Siegmund and Matthew Sharp as Hunding.
Below, conductor Kenneth Woods shares his thoughts about the three complex and tragic characters who drive the drama throughout this intense hour of love, rage, betrayal and discovery.
Tune in for our webcast via Facebook and YouTube at 7:30 PM on Saturday 16 May. It will be available on demand for a limited time after broadcast.
It was a dark and stormy night.
Really, it was.
A man races through a maelstrom, his energy rapidly leaving him. Cold, soaking and exhausted, he sees a house and makes for it. He makes his way inside. As the last drop of adrenaline drains from his system, he lays down by the fireplace and despairingly says “whoever’s hearth this is, here I must rest.”
Over the course of sixty minutes of the greatest music ever written, we will learn that he is a man whose life has been driven by necessity and need almost from his earliest days. On this fateful night, of all the houses he could have sought refuge in, he has come to the most dangerous and promising of them all.
The woman of the house discovers him. “A foreigner” or “A stranger” (“Ein fremder Mann”) she says. “I must question him.” Like the stranger, her’s has been a life shaped by the word “must.” Over the course of the next hour, she discovers true agency for the first time in her life.
When one goes to see Act One of Wagner’s Die Walküre, the listener starts with an unfair advantage over the characters. You know, or at least you think you know, who these people are because you saw their names on the poster and in the programme. In fact, it is not until the last few minutes of this mammoth musical span that Wagner meant for us, and for them, to learn their names and their true identities. They are Siegmund and Sieglinde. “Sieg”means “victory.” Together, they represent the promise of victory for the world. They are twins, separated in childhood, and by the end of this act, they are lovers. In the course of this act, they discover both who they are and what they can do.
The question of identity is key throughout Act One of Walküre, and the process by which the characters reveal who they really are is neither straightforward or complete. As I work on the score and study the libretto, there are many questions for which Wagner forces us to look deep between the lines for answers.
A huge amount of the sung dialogue in The Ring is what we call “exposition,” in which the characters tell us their backstory by telling each other their backstory. The stranger, who we later learn to be Siegmund, tells us he was raised by a man named Wolfe, and that when he returned from a hunt with his father, he discovered his mother had been killed and his twin sister abducted.
I think this is one of the most important clues to who Siegmund and Sieglinde are. Nowhere in the libretto does Wagner tell us their age, nor does he tell us how old they were when they were separated. Because they seem not to fully recognise each other until the end of the act, it’s easy to assume that they were very, very young when they last saw each other- so young as to not have any memory of each other. However, Siegfried clearly remembers discovering the body of his mother. It’s almost the first meaningful thing he tells us about his early life. And it happened at the end of a hunt, which means he was old enough to accompany Wolfe on a dangerous activity. I think this puts the twins as somewhere between eight and twelve years old when they were separated. Old enough that they should recognise each other more readily than they seem to.
Of course, Siegmund feels something very powerful for Sieglinde the moment he first sees her. As soon as he awakes, he begs for a drink. When she gives it to him, we hear the Love motif for the first time.
But what of her?
When Seigmund first asks her who she is, she speaks of herself as a non-person. “This house and this woman are Hunding’s property.”
Hunding, patriarch of the house in which Siegmund finds himself, we will meet soon. Like Siegmund, much of what he sings amounts to exposition, as he purports to tell us who he is. Hunding is a man of power and property. To the west, he tells us, are great estates of his wealthy kin. They serve as Hunding’s honor guard.
As the three characters circle each other in Hunding’s great room, they choose carefully what to reveal to each other. Sieglinde is Hunding’s wife. That much is clear. Late in the act, while Hunding, who she has drugged, sleeps, she describes to Siegmund how she was forced to marry Hunding and how, during the ceremony, a mysterious stranger arrived and plunged a great sword into the ash tree in the center of Hunding’s hall (I think more houses should have great ash trees in the living room).
Sieglinde is not yet sure she knows with certainty who Siegmund is, although one gets the sense that she thinks she might know his identity because of how she is helping him and by giving him clues to her identity. She describes the man who left the sword as “ein Fremder”, which is usually translated as “a stranger” but is more accurately “a foreigner,” perhaps even “an outsider.” Tellingly, it is the first word she used to describe Siegmund when she first saw him. She describes the foreigner at her wedding as an old man in a grey cloak with only one eye visible. We know this is Wotan, who she knows as Wälse and who Siegmund has been calling Wolfe. As she tells this story, it sounds as if she didn’t recognise this man, but she must have. We know that Siegfried remembers their father well (although his adventures with Wolfe continued after Sieglinde’s abduction). Whether she and Siegfried have changed so much physically from the age of their separation to the moment of their reunion that they really don’t recognise each other is an open question. At the end of the act, there is a moment in which they both sort of admit “I knew it was you all along,” but it’s not entirely clear that Wagner means that literally or not. I think because the incestuous nature of their love makes pretty much everyone in the universe so uncomfortable, it is easier to pretend that they fell in love first, then recognised their familial bond. Much as I would find it easier to accept them as sympathetic characters, I’m not sure that’s right.
In fact, it is fascinating how much of the time in Act One the characters turn out to be lying to each other, and, by proxy to us. Sieglinde must have recognised Wäsle/Wotan/Wolfe when he left the sword. She speaks of the sympathy and warmth with which he gazed at her, but must it have affected her to see her father walk out the door as she was forced into her marriage to Hunding? It is hard to imagine a more horrifying feeling of abandonment and betrayal.
Siegmund, of course, tells us a great deal about how difficult his life has been. He even introduces himself as “Wehwalt” a name which translates as “Woeful.” But Sieglinde’s, of which we learn very little, is the true horror story.
Siegfried describes returning from a hunt to find the body of his mother – there was no sign of his twin sister when he and his father arrived. This means that Sieglinde would have witnessed her mother’s murder as a young girl. We know almost nothing of how she came from that horrifying moment to the one at which she became Hunding’s wife. How many years was she captive, and what horrors did she experience between the death of her mother and her wedding? How many more years in bondage to Huding before Siegmund’s arrival? In a production of Die Walküre, I think these are the sorts of really important questions which Wagner leaves for the interpreter to resolve. Filling in the gaps of Sieglinde’s back story is not pleasant work. Who abducted her? Was it Hunding’s “honor guard?” Did he order her mother’s murder and her abduction? Or did he buy her? Just how old was she when she was forced into this marriage? It’s not at all unthinkable that she was shockingly young, only barely an adolescent. Or younger even than that?
One backstory for Sieglinde could be that she and Siegmund were nearly adolescents when they were separated and that she was abducted on Hunding’s orders to be brought to him. If so, we must assume that much of the mystery between them is not that they were too young to remember each other when they were separated, but that she, in particular, is suffering from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If there were years between her abduction and her marriage, we must then assume she was more or less enslaved for most of her youth. Her scars must be deeper than almost any character in opera.
Hunding is a much more interesting character than he seems on first glance. Of the three, he’s the one I feel like I have the most personal experience with. The bullying patriarch who wields a combination of religion, money, power and law to bend the vulnerable, particularly his wife, to his will is an archetype I’ve seen in many cultures, from the right wing land barons of the American West to the coercive Evangelical leaders of the South. I’ve seen Hundings in Muslim, Mormon, Baptist, Catholic, Jewish and non-faith communities. A real Hunding doesn’t care whether he prays to Jehovah, Allah or Fricka, only that his god supports his claim to power. He is the civic leader whose public persona hides a private horror show of spousal abuse. Whatever world we find Hunding in, he will have aligned himself with faith and law and made himself the epitome of an upstanding, eminent man
So, who is this Hunding? Who is our Hunding? I think Hunding wants us to over-estimate his grandeur and underestimate his depravity. On one level, it seems like over the course of Act One that he is completely outsmarted by the twins. He’s certainly deceived by Sieglinde, who drugs him so she and Siegmund can have their long-awaited reunion and consummation.
However, in Act Two, we find out that Hunding, drugged or not, has managed to appeal to Fricka (the queen of the gods) for support in his coming battle with Siegmund. Fricka is certainly aware of the twins’ liaison, and there are clues in her confrontation with Wotan that Hunding is aware, too.
I tend to think that Hunding is probably a darker and more nakedly Machiavellian character than we’re first led to think, or than most productions portray him as. I’m interested in the idea of a production in which he has engineered the abduction and enslavement of Sieglinde, and perhaps even driven Siegmund to his house. (Hunding does tell us that he came to the fight that Siegmund fled earlier that day. If he’s realised the he’s in pursuit of the last survivor of Sieglinde’s clan, then it’s only logical that he would drive Siegmund to his house so that he could kill him without the possibility of Siegmund causing Hunding’s complicity in the murder of the twin’s mother).
Hunding appears to the twins, and therefore to us, as a monster. But he sees himself, and expects to be seen by others, as a great man, a pillar of the community. He has the law on his side. In Act Two, Fricka argues that it is the twins who are the villains- they are most certainly wildly transgressive. In the end, her argument carries the day and Wotan must admit that Hunding has the law on his side. It is interesting, I think, to contemplate Hunding not as a bullying fool, but as a calculating and controlling man who is attempting to manipulate laws and gods into helping exterminate Siegmund, who he sees as the last threat to his total domination of Sieglinde. In the end, the gods decide that Siegfried and Sieglinde are monsters, too.
There is an interesting musical clue to Hunding’s nature in his Leitmotif. It’s one of the catchiest and most memorable motifs in the Ring. All of the Hunding’s I’ve known like to appear straightforward and upstanding and to conceal the depths of their cunning. What is interesting about Hunding’s theme is that, unlike, for instance, the Sword motif, it never repeats literally. Every time it occurs, Wagner changes the harmonic progression. The simple, straightforward exterior conceals an inner complexity which aligns him more powerfully with Alberich and Hagen.
By understanding who the characters really are, and how much of what they tell us about their past is true, one hopes to make some sense of the story. One can’t help but be sceptical at the idea of Siegmund arriving in Hunding’s house purely by chance. Likewise the “coincidence” that Siegmund comes to Hunding’s from a battle in which he tried to stop and arranged marriage much like Hunding’s seems too blatant to be a mere coincidence. One might argue that these are just holes in the plot. I might argue that Wagner spent 25 years writing the libretto. I might argue that, sometimes, a hole can be a window.
This may all sound a bit speculative, but it’s what I’ll be mulling over when I give the upbeat on Saturday. When we know what has happened before the first note, we’ll know that when he first sings, Siegfried is a man who has run out of options. When she first sings, Sieglinde is a woman who hasn’t had any options in a long time. What do people in these circumstances talk like? How might they sing?
Who are these three people? Who or what has brought them together, and what is the true meaning of what happens in the course of this dark and stormy night?