Die Walküre may clock in at nearly five hours but it takes only eight minutes to find heaven.
Houston Grand Opera continues this week Fura dels Baus’ ambitious production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle after last year’s triumphant performance of Das Rheingold. After lackluster productions of Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute, the nightmare before Christmas of The Christmas Carol, and a too-recently recycled Madame Butterfly, the Wortham Theater Center could use a touch of the divine.
Conducted by HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers and featuring Iain Patterson as Wotan and the glorious Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde, Die Walküre opens Saturday (April 18) at the Wortham Theater Center and runs through May 3.
Divinity is just what Die Walküre delivers in eight of the most famous minutes in opera. “The Ride of the Valkyries” has been excerpted endlessly and circulates widely, especially in cinema from The Birth of a Nation to the unforgettable sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:
In Apocalypse Now helicopters blast “The Ride of the Valkyries” as soldiers assault a Vietnamese village. In Die Walküre, the relentless layering of flutes, horns, and strings accompany the handmaidens of Odin, the Valkyries, who select the braves of slain heroes and carry them from the battlefield to Valhalla. War has not yet come to Valhalla, though Das Rheingold has already sets the stage for disasters beginning to unfold amongst the gods.
In this installment of the story Wotan’s favorite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, features prominently. And yet the story begins with incestuous love of brother and sister Siegmund and Sieglinde who cannot resist the attraction to one another. The result is a child, Siegfried, the subject of the next opera in Wagner’s cycle. Although Wotan favors Siegmund, his wife, Fricka, the goddess of matrimony insists that his crime be punished.
When Brünnhilde pities Siegmund and disobeys Wotan’s order, his retribution is swift. After he strips Brünnhilde of her powers, he declares he will send her into a magic sleep and leave her vulnerable to the whims of whoever finds her. After she pleads with Wotan, he agrees to seals her in a magic sleep surrounded by a ring of fire so that only a great hero might reach her.
With family like this, who needs enemies?
With inexplicable bouts of incest, revenge, magic slumbers, and rings of fire, it’s no wonder audiences have consistently responded to the rousing clarity of these glorious minutes. The Valkyries sing of a heroism that surpasses social status or wealth:
For none but the brave, be he king or a slave
With a pounding heart in his chest
Will be worthy to rise and with the Valkyries fly
And ride to the ancient Valhalla
In the Met’s recent Ring, eight Valkyries ride planks of that infamous movable set before sliding down to rifle bones in search of something worthy to carry to heaven:
The Valkyries find clarity in the heroism of war. They represent the idea of a world that rewards valorous endeavor. Thus it was extremely fitting a few years ago that at the dedication of rehearsal halls named for Carlisle Floyd and David Gockley, HGO artistic director Patrick Summers arranged for an eight piano arrangement of "The Ride of The Valkyries."
And yet Brunnhilde painfully discovers, virute is not always rewarded. She finds herself living in a universe in which the wrong people fall in love for no reason and with disastrous consequences, gods scheme and cheat to satisfy unhealthy longings of their own, pity is punished mercilessly, fathers turn on daughters, and the honest take the fall for the treacherous at heart. Perhaps the life in Valhalla is a little more Apocalypse Now than Wotan would care to admit.