The Valkyrie: Synopsis
In a primordial, mythical past, Erda rests in “knowing sleep”; the world ash tree grows and flourishes, with the spring of wisdom plashing in its shade. Wotan, “a dauntless god”, covets power. He sacrifices an eye, drinks from the spring, and breaks a branch off the ash tree, shaping it into the shaft of a spear. Into it he carves runes that represent treaties – Wotan wants to rule, not by brute force, but by laws and treaties.
However, the well-spring of wisdom dries up, the world ash tree gradually withers, the laws and treaties are broken by Wotan himself, craving as he does power and love.
The Nibelung Alberich, in contrast, has renounced love and has thus been able to forge a ring from the Rhinegold, a ring that grants the power to rule the world. Wotan steals the accursed ring from him in order to pay the giants for building his fortress for the gods, Valhalla. Shackled by his own debts, he searches for a way out.
To discover more, Wotan overpowers Erda “with the magic of love” and learns of his impending end at Alberich’s hands. Erda bears him Brünnhilde, who together with eight other Valkyries gathers heroes that have fallen in combat and are now to protect Wotan’s rule. He fears that Alberich may win back the ring, currently possessed though unused by Fafner, who has turned himself into a dragon. Wotan cannot steal the ring himself without only further violating his own laws. What he needs is a “free man” that rebels against the order of the gods. Therefore Wotan, in the guise of Volsa, fathers the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde on a mortal woman. Placing all his hope in the couple, he ordains their separation and suffering.
Siegmund finds his mother murdered, his sister abducted, and finally also loses track of his father, the two of them having been constantly hunted as a pair of wolves.
Sieglinde is now Hunding’s, “a woman who, without being asked, robbers had given him for a wife”. At the wedding “an old man in a grey cloak” with a hat pulled down low appeared and thrust a sword “into the trunk of the ash” which nobody has since been able to pull out again.
On the run a wounded Siegmund reaches Hunding’s house, where he is cared for by Sieglinde, who offers refreshment and comfort. Hunding returns from hunting and immediately senses a bond between the two. Siegmund reveals he is a a wolf-cub and tells of his wretched fate. Recently he attempted to save a young woman from being forced into marriage, and killed her brothers in battle. From this, Hunding realises that Siegmund is the man his own kinsmen are pursuing. Before he retires for the night with his wife, Hunding challenges the unarmed man to a duel the next morning.
Siegmund hopes to find the sword his father Volsa once promised him in his hour of direst need. Secretly Sieglinde comes back in. She has given her husband a sleep-inducing drink and tells Siegmund the story of the sword. “In a gentle light, spring is aglow” as Sieglinde recognises her twin brother. He pulls the sword out of the tree and names it “Nothung”. Full of passionate intent, Sieglinde gives herself to the brother she loves: “thus flourish, Volsung blood!”
Wotan has not only fathered Siegmund and Sieglinde in the guise of Volsa, but also as a god he has fathered (on Erda) Brünnhilde and eight other Valkyries, who gather up fallen heroes to protect Valhalla. He bids Brünnhilde “ensure the Volsung’s victory” in the imminent duel with Hunding.
Wotan’s spouse Fricka is outraged by the incestuous infidelity of the Volsung siblings and insists that the violation of divine order be punished. Deeply hurt by Wotan’s adultery, she exposes his plan to make Siegmund, ostensibly a “free man”, in fact serve his own purposes. Since Siegmund in his need could only have gained possession of “the magically strong, flashing sword” with divine intervention, Fricka demands that Wotan let Siegmund fall in single combat with Hunding, and that he use Brünnhilde as an instrument against what he originally willed.
Alone with Brünnhilde, Wotan laments that he is the “unfreest of them all” and tells her of the ring of the Nibelung: “The curse from which I fled still has not been lifted.” Apparently resigned, all he wishes for now is “the end!” and he instructs Brünnhilde to secure victory for Hunding.
Siegmund and Sieglinde are on the run. She feels “dishonoured, disgraced, …rendered worthless” and tries to run away from her beloved brother – not because of the incest committed as siblings, but because she belonged to Hunding, “who held her without love”. As she sinks senseless into a deep sleep, Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund with an annunciation of his death and admission to the blissful abode of Valhalla. Yet he refuses to follow her on hearing that Sieglinde cannot join him in the gods’ fortress. In defiant rage he threatens to kill himself and his pregnant twin sister in spite of “the child that she has lovingly conceived” from him. Deeply moved by his loyalty unto death, “in pleasure and sorrow”, Brünnhilde now promises Siegmund and Sieglinde “blessing and victory” in the battle. But Wotan himself intervenes, shattering Siegmund’s sword with his spear and letting Hunding slay the Volsung. Brünnhilde grabs the broken pieces of the sword and escapes with Sieglinde.
With jubilant cries of “Hoyotoho!” the Valkyries assemble, about to ride to Valhalla with the fallen heroes they have collected. Brünnhilde arrives, not with a man but with Sieglinde – both are being pursued by Wotan. Sieglinde has no will to live until she hears that she is pregnant; this gives her the strength to venture into uncertainty. Given the shattered sword by Brünnhilde, she escapes full of hope into the forest where Fafner guards the ring.
Brünnhilde comes forward to hear her punishment. In front of all her sisters Wotan furiously declares she will be cast out as a human maiden, locked “in defenceless sleep”, to be woken by a high-handed stranger for whom she will “wither and die”: easy prey and “the topic and butt of all jokes”. Brünnhilde protests that she was obeying the innermost wish of the all-powerful war-father, not the will of the self-estranged husband of Fricka. She says she was ready, out of love, to share “victory or death with Siegmund” and appeals desperately to Wotan to let her serve his will and be again “his heart’s holiest pride”. Overcome, he bids goodbye, kisses away her divinity, and surrounds her with a ring of fire whose blazing flames will deter all but the most fearless and freest hero – who is now being born by the fugitive Sieglinde and whom Brünnhilde has already given a name: Siegfried.