The second of the operas in the Ring Cycle is the one that is performed most commonly on its own. This makes sense to me; it’s both the most self-contained of the lot (even though it fits into the larger picture) and debatably the one with the most human-level stakes. (It also introduces a character we can all actually sympathize with in Brunnhilde, though they certainly do her dirty here.)
When last we left off, the gods had just managed to ransom back Freya from the giants, and all those Nibelung handicrafts were sent off with the giants – well, for about ten seconds, before Fafner murdered Fasolt to claim the cursed ring for himself.
But we don’t start with any of that (and in fact won’t be seeing much of anything regarding it). Instead we start off with a harried-looking fellow collapsing at remote forest homestead, having been chased through the forest for some time by rather a lot of angry folks. There, he is tended to by the lady of the house, Sieglinde, whose husband Hunding is, it is hinted, Not A Nice Man.
Naturally, because this is an opera and runs on opera rules, the two of them fall for one another immediately. Like, immediately. As in “the second they look at each other.” And so we get a whole act’s worth of increasing smolder between the two of them as we gradually learn the mysterious man’s backstory (he was raised in the middle of nowhere by his dad after his sister was kidnapped and his mother killed when he was young, then his dad disappeared mysteriously one day), why he was being chased through the woods (after a life on the edges of law/society he tried to rescue a girl from a forced marriage, and it went so badly he ended up killing her brothers, she died too, and now the entire clan is after him), and that Hunding is one of said kinsmen and is fully planning to kill him in the morning, though the law of hospitality forbids him from so doing now. Oops.
Incidentally, we also learn that Sieglinde’s marriage to Hunding was also forced, and that the marriage was attended by a mysterious wanderer in gray with a hat worn so low it covered one eye. Said wanderer jabbed a sword so far into an ash-tree that only the hilt is visible, announced that only a true hero could draw it, and then peaced out, leaving the audience to wonder if Odin really cares about disguising himself at all because really dude come on.
Anyway. Our smolder-y pair decide that the best plan, now that they’re clearly madly in love with one another, is to have him (now called Siegmund) draw the sword from the
stone tree and get the heck out of Dodge before Hunding wakes up. And so they do, after a very extended sequence of rapturous ravings about the glories of their love for one another.
Teeny problem with this plan #1: An attentive audience will have noticed by now that Sieglinde’s story and Siegmund’s overlap. A lot. And it looks increasingly likely that they are not only madly in love with one another but also brother and sister.
Teeny problem with this plan #2: Sieglinde is (technically, unwillingly) married. And Hunding’s response on waking up and finding his wife gone is to demand justice from a certain goddess whose portfolio includes marriage and who happens to be herself married to Odin.
So yeah, cue the divine bickering, which arrives in force in Act 2. Frigga/Fricka insists that Siegmund must die to avenge her honor; Odin is insistent that he needs this guy for…things, okay? And anyway, he’s already told his favorite Valkyrie Brunnhilde to see to it that Siegmund is victorious in the coming battle. Back and forth they go, manipulating each other, until eventually, with great reluctance, Odin caves. Fine. Siegmund will die. He’ll change his order. Satisfied (and more than a little smug-looking), Fricka leaves, just as Brunnhilde returns to check in with dad before heading out.
And here we get an interesting little scene, where Odin explains what’s bugging him so much: That ring. Alberich is still out there, you see, and sure, Fafner may have the ring now, but if a whole-ass army comes after him, Alberich may very well get it back. And then…well…bad news for the world. But he cannot act directly to prevent this possible catastrophe – that has to come from someone else, someone who isn’t bound by the same contracts he is, someone free…
Someone like the kid he went off to have and then ghosted a while back, who is even now in a world of shit for being a little too charming to his own sister.
And so, after a moment of despair, he tasks Brunnhilde with a new job: make sure Siegmund dies in the coming battle with Hunding. Feeling more than a little morose herself, she sets off.
…And then, after meeting up with Siegmund and seeing him do the unthinkable by turning down elevation to Valhalla rather than leave Sieglinde, she decides “Actually, fuck this” and helps Siegmund in the battle anyway. Orders or no orders.
It doesn’t work, of course. Odin himself shows up and sees to it that Siegmund is killed, shattering his sword; Brunnhilde rescues Sieglinde (and the sword fragments) before her father can show up to administer her punishment for her disobedience, advising Sieglinde that she’s now expecting a child who will one day wield that sword again, once it is re-forged. She also offers a name for Sieglinde to give the future hero: Siegfried.
And then, the punishment comes. Brunnhilde is to be disowned utterly for her rebellion. Put under an enchantment, Sleeping Beauty-style, stripped of her immortality, and left to the mercies of the first man who happens to wander by and wake her. (I…am probably not the only audience member to detect an only-just-barely-implicit “disobey me? Enjoy probable rape at the hands of some rando!” threat here, am I?)
Only after she points out that her act of rebellion was the thing Odin truly wanted in the first place does he agree to mitigate her sentence by setting her up with a ring of fire for protection. She may end up stuck with the man who comes to wake her, but that man will at least need to be brave, a hero.
I mean, that sentence is still some bullshit even on a second viewing, particularly since one can argue that her only real “crime” is doing what a powerful man wanted to do but could not. (…Kind of like that hero he’s so obsessed with finding.) A Valkyrie is powerful, but ultimately an instrument of the will of Odin; for her exercise of her own agency Brunnhilde must have that agency stripped completely, along with her power.
She must become that most powerless of all things, in fact: a mortal woman.
The horror of this punishment is so great that all of the other Valkyries flee it in terror.
I don’t know much about Richard Wagner’s personal life, but I cannot help but wonder how the women in his life may have felt about all this.
I mean, there’s quite a bit of WTF-ery going on here. We’ve got an incestuous relationship that the participants seem…surprisingly fine with, and the whole shitstorm really takes off because there’s a marriage being violated, though it seems a bit rich that the goddess of marriage doesn’t have a problem with spousal abuse or, you know, forcing people into said marriages but god(s) literally forbid you try to leave such an arrangement.
Then there’s the part where all of this is arguably Odin’s fucking fault in the first place, again, since he obviously has been planning to have Siegmund find that sword, and knew his sister was there (being forced into a marriage at the time), didn’t do anything about it – encouraged her to think of the one who would take the sword as a hero, even! – and then somehow is all shocked-Pikachu-face when it all blows up on him. Again.
Even if things hadn’t gone quite so far south – if Hunding had just decided well, I kind of hated her anyway let’s find another woman – one wonders if Siegmund really would have counted as “a hero that he’d never helped” given that Odin fathered and raised him, then left him a magic sword in a tree and was all set to make arrangements to send a Valkyrie to help him out into the deal. That…sounds like an awful lot of help, dude.
Back to the first major throughline of the whole cycle: The gods are assholes.