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Der Ring from New York, Part 2

This is a commentary on the second part of Wagner's Ring cycle, as heard in the live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera. See the review of Das Rheingold on March 25.

Last Saturday, April 3, I listened to Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second opera of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. At five hours in length, including two intermissions, this involves a not insignificant commitment of time, but the quality of the performance made it worthwhile. This opera has some of the most exciting moments in the cycle, as well as some of those painfully dull half-hours. The good part about listening to the opera on the radio is that you can use those long narrative passages to work on a crossword puzzle or fix a sandwich.

The first scene of Act I has a rhythmic, driving introduction that leads into the spectacular love scene between Siegmund (Plácido Domingo) and Sieglinde (Deborah Voigt), the brother and sister who are reunited in the hut where Sieglinde lives with her husband, Hunding (listed as Hans Sotin but actually performed Saturday by Sergei Koptchak). As their eyes meet, the beautiful melody of a solo cello rises up from the orchestra to bind them together. Unfortunately, in the second scene, Wagner advances the story with one of those long dialogues, puncuated with less thrilling, long instrumental solos. (This is not only a confusing way to present the story, as Hunding and Siegmund gradually reveal who they are and how they are connected, but it could be presented in the space of a minute or so with a more traditional recitative.) In fact, in the third scene, some of Wagner's greatest successes are adaptations of the more or less traditional "aria," such as Sieglinde's "O merke wohl, was ich dir melde!" and, of course, the famous pieces sung by Siegmund and Sieglinde, "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond" and "Du bist der Lenz." All three singers received generous applause and cries of "Bravo" at the end of the act, with which I concur in my approval.

At the first intermission, Fr. M. Owen Lee, a retired professor of classics with a vast knowledge of opera, spoke about the importance of the classical Greek drama in Wagner's conception of the music drama (Wagner and the Greeks). When Wagner was a schoolboy, Greek was his favorite subject, and he even tried to continue his study of classical Greek and ancient tragedy when he was struggling in Paris. Fr. Lee traced the elements of the Ring cycle that Wagner took, not from Norse and German myth, but from the works of Aeschylus. I found his identification of the character of Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie of the title, with Athena to be particularly thought provoking. Fr. Lee's talk was followed by Cori Ellison, dramaturge of the New York City Opera, speaking on the role of the Valkyries in the Ring (Those Ill-Mannered Girls). The word in Old Norse means "chooser of the slain," and as they fly back and forth between their duties on the earth, hovering over Scandanavian battlefields, and those in Valhalla, where they serve drink to the gods, the reflection from their armor creates the aurora borealis.

At the opening of Act II, Wagner teases us with the excitement of the music for the Ride of the Valkyries, only to meander for the rest of the opera's longest act through interminable dialogues. In the first scene, Fricka chides Wotan into swearing not to protect his offspring, Siegmund. In the second scene, Wotan summarizes the entire story of Das Rheingold to Brünnhilde and orders her not to help Siegmund. In the third scene, Siegmund and Sieglinde try to discuss their troubles as they flee from Hunding's pursuit. In the fourth scene, Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund and tells him what's going to happen. Then, in the fifth scene, it finally happens: Wotan allows Siegmund to be killed but also kills Hunding, while Brünnhilde disobeys Wotan's orders and rides off with Sieglinde on her horse.

If one has snoozed through the second act, it is impossible to remain asleep for the third act, which begins with that stirring ensemble number known as the "Ride of the Valkyries." Conductor James Levine began the act at a rather brisk tempo, which could not be maintained throughout the scene. In both this scene and the final scene of the second act, the anger with which Wotan chases after Brünnhilde and arrives in thunder and lightning to confront her is set to equally exciting music, with the immense brass sounds that Wagner excelled at creating. The opera's climax, the third scene of Act III, featured some of the best performances, including the aria ("Weil für dich im Auge") sung by Brünnhilde (the lustrous Jane Eaglen), and Wotan's farewell aria ("Leb' wohl, du kühnes"), sung superbly by James Morris. For all of Wagner's innovation, it is remarkable how he often relies on operatic traditions that had proven so effective, as a strong father-daughter (baritone-soprano) relationship can be in opera. It had certainly worked for Halevy (La Juive [1835]) and Verdi (Rigoletto [1851], Simon Boccanegra [1857], and, sort of, La Traviata [1853]), to name only a few examples.

Tune in for the rest of the Ring cycle broadcasts: Siegfried on April 17, and Götterdämmerung on April 23.

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