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DIE WALKURE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: James Morris, Hildegard Behrens, Christa Ludwig, Gary Lakes, Jessye Norman
Director: Brian Large
Conductor: James Levine
Audio: German DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, or PCM stereo
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese
Video: Color, 4:3 full-screen
Studio: Universal - Deutsche Grammophon
Features: Photo gallery, trailer, booklet
Length: 241 minutes
Release Date: November 12, 2002

"Siegmund must die.  Let this be the Valkyrie's task!"

Film ****

Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the second part of an operatic tetralogy, Richard Wagner's epic Ring Cycle.  In the opening opera Das Rheingold, we learn of the creation of a terrible Ring of Power, forged from the stolen gold of the immortal Rheinmaidens.  Gods, giants, and goblins of the deep alike quarrel over the Ring, a cursed thing whose might also promises a tragic fate for any wielder.  At the close of Das Rheingold, this terrible treasure claims the life of its last owner, and by the commencement of Die Walküre it is rumored to rest in the secret clutches of the murderous giant Fafner.

But Die Walküre is less concerned with giants and goblins than it is with the mortal denizens of the Earth - humanity itself.  An eon has passed, and men and women has settled into prominence.  As Die Walküre opens, a Nameless One, "wolfing" by personal design and wanderer of the woods by reputation, has found shelter in the home of the gentle-hearted woman, Sieglinde.  She is married but admires this wounded and handsome warrior.  There is a likeliness about him that intrigues her and draws her unfathomably closer to him as she tends to his needs.

Sieglinde's own husband, Hunding, is a loveless and pitiless soul consumed more with the visceral thrill of combat than with the consolation of a lonely wife.  However, upon returning home that same evening from the barren battlefield, Hunding is not amused and perhaps jealously embittered by the presence of a stranger in his own home.  The stranger relates an unusual story of woe and tragedy, one of the downfall of his own family by cruel Neiding tribes, how one by one he lost his mother, his sister, and lastly his own father.  Wehwalt or "Woeful" the stranger names himself, and hardly "Peaceful," for life has granted little contentment or tranquility for him.  As the stranger recounts how he came about his present wounds and arrived at this home, Hunding slowly realizes that the faceless enemy who had fled the barren battlefield is none other than this stranger taken refuge in Hunding's own home.

The sanctity of hospitality forbids Hunding from immediately slaying the stranger.  Instead, Hunding charitably grants him shelter for the evening, but come morn, they must assemble upon the battlefield for a fight to the death.  While Hunding rests, the "wolfling" discovers the nature of his true heroic identity from Sieglinde, for they have shared a long-forgotten kinship in distant memory.  Sieglinde reveals the Nameless One's true name, Siegmund, son of Volsa, and together, Sieglinde and Siegmund flee together into a wintry night turned spring by their blossoming affections for one another.

Unfortunately, this bond of like blood is an unholy sacrilege upon the sanctity of marriage vows, and it cannot rest.  Hunding, for all his arrogance, is the wronged man, his wife stolen from him under the shroud of sleep.  As Act II opens, Hunding has plead his case to the heavens, beseeching Fricka, Mistress of Weddings, to help him exact revenge and restore his honor.  Hearing the mortal's cries, the goddess turns to her husband, the brooding Wotan, father of hosts, ruler of Valhalla.

Irreconcilable, Fricka demands that the Volsung Siegmund be disclaimed, that this mortal must submit to her justice.  But, Wotan lord of gods is reluctant, for he secretly prides the mortal man as a favorite son.  Fricka does not relent, insisting that the Valkyrie Brünnhilde be dispatched to defend marriage's sacred honour.  Would Wotan have that the marital authority of his immortal wife be mocked by the defiance of mere mortals?  Would Wotan, divine guardian of oaths and contracts, not honor such vows?  Would Wotan rend the bonds of virtue and thereby risk the very downfall of Valhalla and the gods?  Derided by men, deprived of power, the gods would surely perish, and who then would grieve for the gods when they have fallen?  Fricka's demands are, in a sense, a veiled diatribe against Wotan himself, for in his unfaithful wandering ways he has begat many a mortal or heavenly offspring not of like blood to Fricka.

So is set the stage for a hero's downfall.  The prophecies tell that a mighty sword, a magical blade thrust into an oak tree, will appear to Siegmund when he reclaims his true name.  Notung it will be named, and none but the mightiest and most worthy warrior, Siegmund, may claim it for his own. Yet, by the gods' command, the prophecy will be shattered; the invincible sword will falter and betray the hero Siegmund in his moment of direst need.

Brünnhilde, warrior maiden and daughter to Wotan, has been entrusted by her father with seeing through this deed.  One of nine daughters, Valkyries all, Brünnhilde represents Wotan's greatest hope for assuaging the ancient doom preordained by the Ring of Power and acknowledged by the all-seeing ancient Earth Goddess Erda.  By bold design and internal fire of will, Brünnhilde and her sisters over the past eon have gathered hosts of brave warriors into the halls of Valhalla.

But the wrongful command to slay a hero weighs heavily upon Brünnhilde's mind.  Which deed is the worse crime - to betray the words of her father's insincere command and lose his trust, or instead to betray his hopes for the hero Siegmund and thereby forsake the goddess Fricka?  And what is to become of the woman Sieglinde?  Either way, heaven's wrath will surely destroy the loyal Valkyrie.

Wotan himself bemoans the empty glory of divinity and the complex machinations and sacrifices of morality and justice which have thus far kept him in power.  In rage and frustration, he declares, "Let all I built fall to pieces."  It is a dark omen, one that foreshadows the climactic Armageddon of the Ring Cycle by the fourth opera, Götterdämmerung.

Not until Act II do we begin to truly appreciate the true scope of the grand conflict slowly enveloping the world.  Wotan, master of battles, chief among the gods, contends for mastery of the heavens and earth with the darkling master of the Underworld, Alberich.  Each strives to amass a superior army, awaiting the inevitable moment when these terrible forces must clash in a final battle before the destruction of the world.  While Alberich draws his legions from the tormented denizens of the dark, Wotan must rely upon his Valkyries, the warrior-sisters of the heavens, to collect fallen heroes from battlefields past, present, and future.  These heroes will be honored guests in Valhalla until which day their legendary skills are needed against the throes of the Nibelung Alberich.

As for the terrible Ring of Power, the source of all the contention between these lords of light and darkness?  That accursed treasure, along with the accumulated wealth of much tragedy, lies hidden, guarded in intense secrecy by a fierce dragon, once Fafner afoot, now ominously transformed into an unimaginable horror.

Wotan, once touched by the allure of the Ring, wants to recover it to turn the tide of battle against Alberich.  But only a "free hero," one unencumbered either by the burdens of the gods or the dark lords, can recover the Ring and the hoard from ever-vigilant Fafner.  The crisis calls for a hero who, free from divine protection, can free himself from all divine law.  In the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde rests the genesis of just such a hero.  But if Siegmund should fall, how fares the hopes of Wotan then?

Act III opens with arguably the most widely-known piece of operatic music - the "Ride of the Valkyries."  Hints of this theme occur in quick leitmotifs throughout Die Walküre, but only in Act III is the full grandeur of this famous theme thrust upon us.  Brünnhilde, the deed done, the crime against the gods committed, flees in terror of her father's wrath.  She arrives amidst her sister Valkyries and pleas for their help to no avail.  Wotan arrives soon upon his steed of iron and fire and descends upon the Valkyries, demanding that they forsake their sister.  The remainder of the opera presents the inevitable, if bittersweet, confrontation between father and daughter, host of heroes against the forlorn mistress of the battlefield.

Die Walküre benefits from a prior viewing of Das Rheingold, but one does not necessarily need prior knowledge of that earlier opera to enjoy Die Walküre.  Wotan himself in musical soliloquy provides a recap of the main events from the first part of the Ring Cycle tetralogy.  Of the acts, Act I is surely the most romantic, Act II is the most tragic, and Die Walküre's final act the most exciting and intense.  The ring of fire, with the tender slumber of love that encages the principals in the opera's finale, serves as Die Walküre's tremendous cliff-hanger closing sequence.

While opera singers are hardly renown for their acting abilities, their superior vocal skills and stage presence often make up for any thespian deficiencies.  Jessye Norman, as Sieglinde, possesses a powerful voice even if she is somewhat stiff as an actress.  Christa Ludwig is quite solid as the wronged Fricka, whose anger compels her husband Wotan to commit a terrible and sorrowful deed in atonement.  Ludwig was in the twilight of her career at this point but demonstrates that despite her age, she clearly remained a supreme singer.  The German soprano Hildegard Behrens has made Brünnhilde one of her signature roles since the early 1980's.  She seems perhaps a bit beyond her teen years for the role here in this 1990 performance but otherwise offers a memorable portrayal of the free-minded and spirited Valkyrie.

Best of all is James Morris.  He is unsurpassed as the anguished god Wotan, a role which he has virtually inhabited comfortably over the years.  Not only does Morris invest heartfelt sincerity into his subtle gestures and stances, but his lyrical phrasing suggest the deep sorrow and helpless regrets which linger in the heart of this god.  Through his actions, Wotan struggles mightily to turn asunder the horrible prophecy of eventual death and doom for the gods.  That these terrible concerns are in significant part due to Wotan's own greed and desires from Das Rheingold makes the dilemma of the gods more tragic.

Wagner's masterpiece draws from popular lore and ancient mythology.  The sword in the tree is a variation on a theme popularized in Arthurian mythology.  The ring of power is a popular archetypal symbol in everything from epic poems to pagan religions to modern-day novels.  Die Walküre, as with all the other operas in the Ring Cycle, is clearly a huge influence on popular culture even in today's epic fantasy films and sensory-overloading space operas.  While Die Walküre is not for the faint of heart, viewers who are interested in experiencing the potential majesty of opera as a performance art will find Die Walküre, the most famous of the Ring Cycle operas, very appealing indeed.

Video ** ½

Die Walküre looks okay but suffers from the usual problems that all opera DVDs possess - varying degrees of graininess and image sharpness (due to the necessity of photographing live performances in the dark), occasional compression defects or pixelation, and the unavoidable hazards of transferring video stock.  Keep in mind that the limitations of video versus film stock are more readily evident when transferred to DVD.  That being said, the video quality on Die Walküre is par for the course.

Audio *** ½

The listening options here are for German DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, or PCM stereo tracks.  There isn't a great deal of different among the tracks, so any option is okay.  The vocals occasionally fade in and out a little, but this is due to the actors' relative distance to stage microphones during the performance.

Coincidentally, for non-German speakers, there are subtitles available, although the translations are at times bizarre and confusing.  As with all operas, viewers who first read the program notes and plot synopsis (provided in the DVD booklet) prior to watching Die Walküre will probably appreciate the opera more in the end.

Features ½*

"When Love's dark enemy begets a son in anger, the end of the Blessed Ones will not be long delayed."

Die Walküre clocks in at a numbing 241 minutes spread over two DVDs.  A paucity of bonus features is thus not surprising.  On Disc One is a photo gallery with vintages photographs of the several singers who have portrayed the lead characters (mainly Brünnhilde) in past productions of Die Walküre.  There is also a list of several dozen available operas in the Deutsche Grammophon DVD catalog.  On Disc Two, there is a trailer (9 min.) offering glimpses into the performances of many of the operas in the Deutsche Grammophon DVD catalog.

There is also a 39-page booklet with accompanying notes providing a synopsis for the opera.  Production photographs are included, and the text of the booklet is provided in English, German, and French.

Summary:

Given the sorrowful things which typically befall operatic lovers, why would any of them want to fall in love?  Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is a heart-breaking tragedy and also part two of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.  The tetralogy continues in Siegfried, which chronicles the rise of the hero Siegfried.

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