Richard Wagner was a man with too much time on his hands. Der Ring des Nibelungen or better known as Wagner’s Ring Cycle took him 26 years to complete, the very definition of procrastination in action. It’s 15 hours over 4 nights of operatic indulgence linking 4 operas together for one story. Being the knuckle dragging, cave dwelling, semi-evolved, cultured troglodytes that we are, we have decided to have another stab at sophistication and offed ourselves off to the opera for the first time. We’re watching The Ride of the Valkyries, part of the Ring Cycle by Wagner presented by Opera North.
The last time we were at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, and our first stab at sophistication, we were watching Swan Lake. Taylor Swift types in tutus twirling about was a tad too long and after 2 1/2 hours of ballet, I had a blank space across my face from the boredom. So it might come as a surprise then that our first night at the Opera, or more precisely 5 hours and 30 minutes at the opera for our first segment of the The Ring Cycle, means I have had to book half a day off work.
As this is our first time at opera, we’ve decided to jump straight into Richard Wagner’s mammoth musical masterpiece, skipping the prelude of Rheingold and opting to jump in at Die Walkure, The Valkyrie, or The Ride of the Valkyries. Go hard or go home und gute nacht, we’re doing this properly. Now that I’m feeling slightly smug and culturally classy, for those wretched souls of the plebeian class who may not understand the basics of this opera based loosely on Norse saga, I’ll give a summary.
The plot, which sounds ludicrous, revolves around a magic ring stolen from a dwarf (who comes from beneath the earth) that grants the power to rule the world involving giants, dragons and other winged wonders. This sounds like Lord Of the Rings doesn’t it? Bear with me, it’s also got a disobedient daughter and incestuous twins, like Game of Thrones but with singing and some familiar classical music.
You’ll recognise some of the music and depending on your film of choice, you can play the ‘soundtrack’ in your chopper which is great if you’re sending G.I.’s into a peasant village where “Charlie don’t surf” in Apocalypse Now or you need to stab, slash and slice your way with your sword in Excalibur. If that’s not enough for you, then please find my beginner’s guide to the opera and Wagner’s Ring Cycle as follows.
As a member of the public, it’s not compulsory to dress like a penguin in tuxedo, top hat, tails and tiaras. Me, I’ve come as a 44 year old man dressed in a shirt that reeks of semi mid-life crisis and tries too hard to disguise a rapidly expanding waist line that the very fabric of space-time has started to warp around. Besides, you need to get comfy, you’ll be here quite some time, don’t worry though, you get a dinner break in between acts but you will be expected to buy your own. You will not be expected to sing for your supper. Disappointingly, it’s not compulsory for the artists to wear horns with helmets and I can’t help but feel that this might give their performance an added edge.
Beginners opera this is not, you are not expected to join in with the singing. You are not comparing insurance, you are not on X-Factor and it’s not a competition, your efforts will not be appreciated. Sit back, relax and enjoy the story which is performed in German. You don’t have to learn any, unless you want to engage in a bit of Freundschaftsbezeigungen with our European cousins. There are subtitles, good job really, because I wear a hearing aid. Not that one makes much of a difference which language they subtitle it in. Now steady yourselves for a slightly extended summary below.
In a dark and stormy forest, Siegmund, an exhausted chap on the run, comes to a house made around the trunk of a tree and takes shelter inside. Sieglinde is at home and hosts Siegmund till her husband Hunding arrives. The story unfolds and we find that Hunding was actually hunting Siegmund and due to the law of hospitality allows him to stay overnight but in the morning will kill him. Siegmund finds a magic sword in the house that’s promised to him in his hour of need. Also turns out the Siegmund is the twin brother of Hunding’s wife, Sieglinde, and they decide to run off together. Saucy shenanigans indeed.
Later on, Fricka, Wotan’s wife but not the mother of the Valkyries, demands that wedlock before love must be honoured and that failure to do so humiliates her, demanding that Seigmund must die to which Wotan reluctantly agrees. The Valkyrie Brunnhilde (favourite daughter of Wotan) appears before Siegmund to announce his death, where he asks about Valhalla and what will happen to Sieglinde and states he’d rather not go to Valhalla if she cannot be with him. Touched by this romantic notion, Brunnhilde tries to defend Siegmund against Hunding until Wotan shows up killing Siegmund and shattering his magic sword. Brunnhilde gathers up the shards of the shattered sword and Sieglinde, who is now pregnant by her brother and lover Siegmund, and ride off.
The nine Valkyries, all daughters by Wotan, meet on the Rock of the Valkyries where they have collected the souls of dead warriors and defend Brunnhilde from Wotan. When Wotan arrives, he is furious with Burnnhilde, denies her immortality and puts her into a deep sleep on top a mountain surrounded by a ring of magic fire where only a hero can awaken her. That hero will be Siegfried, the love child of Sieglinde and Siegmund. Siegfried and Brunnhilde die, the magic ring is destroyed and Valhalla is consumed in flames with the age of the gods over.
There we have it: magic, madness, heaven, sin. Sorry, that’s Taylor Swift’s Blank Space again, which some of you might have after reading that, maybe she already knew the story. OK, it might look a bit long winded but that’s really a very basic summary of 15 hours worth of story packed into a few paragraphs with some very glaring omissions. This is a beginner’s guide to the opera and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, mainly Die Valkyrie after all, not a dissertation.
It’s a tubular triumph of trumpets, tubas, trombones, spine tingling strings, sensual sopranos and orchestral orgasmic opera from Opera North. Brunnhilde belts it and Sieglinde is sublime. It is magnificent and moving with music thumping through my chest. I’m not an emotional man but in Act 3 I could have punched the air with pride as I felt the force of the Valkyries ride. Anyone not feeling a little sorry for Sieglinde & Brunnhilde and woeful for the Walsungs and Wotan must be dead inside. Sopranos have been stunning and on stage for hours, they deserve some rest. A huge ovation for all with a Brava! for her, a Bravo! for him and Bravi! for everyone, the Ride of the Valkyries has been a blast.
If you only go the opera once in your life, make it this. I suspect I’ll be back. Imagine how fantastic Siegfried’s funeral music will sound. Stunning.