Power cannot create freedom. Head god Wotan’s realisation in Act Two of Wagner’s Die Walküre sounds philosophical, but in the superlative hands of Bryn Terfel and Sarah Connolly, playing Wotan and his wife Fricka respectively in the Royal Opera House’s production of the Ring Cycle, it becomes the very fulcrum of a riveting four-and-a-half hours of opera.
Wotan’s problem is that he needs a ‘free hero’ to purge the world of the ring, which is a rival to his power base. He mates with a mere mortal to father such a hero — Siegmund — only to realise, after some exquisite bel canto prodding by Fricka, that his conscientious efforts to protect his son undermine his freedom.
Do governments create or obstruct people’s freedom? Variations on this debate are now raging on both sides of the Atlantic, but not in Keith Warner’s pre-crisis production of Walküre, which eschews grand statements in favour of a rich, if sometimes confusing, tapestry of symbols that mirrors Wagner’s use of leitmotifs (musical themes that represent a character or idea).
After Rheingold — the first opera in the cycle — we feared this approach might diffuse rather than concentrate the drama. But we are now more convinced. The thing about Wagner’s leitmotifs is that they work their way gradually into the mind, gaining new meaning and clarity with each repetition and transformation. So it is proving with the symbols that litter the stage — the red rope (binding characters to their fate), the books (of Wotan’s law) that have now fallen from the bookcase into a disorganised pile, the hearth (this is a family saga), the now-broken window at the back of the stage (through which characters jump for freedom). Over a 15-hour cycle of operas, you do at least have time to absorb and process these images.
But all this would be tedious without such excellent singing and — perhaps even more importantly — acting. Eva-Maria Westbroek carried the first act as Sieglinde, assisted by some welcome moments of humour in John Tomlinson’s stentorian performance as her boorish husband Hunding. The only weak link was Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde — the eponymous Walküre — which is unfortunate given her prominence in the remaining two operas. Her voice was raspy, particularly in the key middle register.
If power cannot set you free, can love? Can Siegfried — the free hero born of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s forbidden love — save the gods from the ring? Walküre gives us a tantalising glimpse of this redemptive alternative. Queue up for part three (Siegfried) returns or day tickets today (7 October), or try for future performances (18 and 28 October) of Die Walküre. If you can’t get tickets to these much-in-demand performances, note that BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the entire Cycle later this month.
Part 1: Das Rheingold