Review of 'The Valkyrie' by Richard Wagner, English National Opera at the Coliseum
The Valkyrie is the second in Wagner's cycle of four independent operas known as The Ring of the Niebelung, a complex story derived from German medieval mythology with a motley cast of characters - gods, humans, giants, dwarfs and Rhinemaidens.
Act One of The Valkyrie is the Ring's only all-human affair, with the action centred on a familiar triangle of bullying husband, unhappy wife and handsome young lover. However, wife and lover turn out to be long-separated twins, children of the chief god Wotan by a mortal woman. Hunding, the husband, vows to kill Siegmund, the lover/brother, whereupon the wife/sister Sieglinde leads her brother to a magic sword which Wotan had plunged into a tree for Siegmund to use in his hour of greatest need. Brother and sister fall into a passionate embrace.
Wagner is here expressing his belief in uninhibited sexual love as one of the supreme forms of human fulfilment, in line with the celebration of sensuality he had gleaned from Young Germany, the liberal, nationalist movement he belonged to as a young man. He is also condemning woman's traditional role as her husband's chattel, through Sieglinde's situation in her loveless marriage to Hunding.
In Act Two, Wotan's wife, Fricka, the guardian of marriage and morality, demands Siegmund's death as he has committed both adultery and incest, breaching two fundamental rules of society. Wotan refuses, saying that Siegmund is a hero who he has created to reclaim the ring on his behalf and inaugurate a new order. But Fricka demands that Wotan withdraw his protection from Siegmund, ordering the same of Wotan's other daughter, Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie, or goddess, whose task it is to carry fallen heroes to Valhalla. In a famous monologue Wotan explains to Brünnhilde the curse of the ring and calls for the end of the old order. In pointing up this sharp antithesis between freedom and power Wagner seems to be expressing the anarchist worldview he possibly acquired from Bakunin.
Wagner also seems here to be using Wotan to denounce the human suffering created by a social order based on greed and violence. Wotan's tragedy is that the world bears his stamp - he wishes he could liberate humanity, but he belongs to the old order which he accepts is finished, and he can only despair at the sight of the bondage which is his legacy and at his inability to usher in the new society.
Unfortunately Phyllida Lloyd's production, with a contemporary setting, obscures rather than illuminates the opera's themes and moral message. To put Sieglinde in Muslim dress and Hunding in battle fatigues, while Wotan is a property speculator, distorts and reduces the work to a much narrower focus. Nevertheless, Valkyrie contains some of the most powerful and moving romantic music ever written, a feature to which the singing and orchestral playing do fair justice.