Die Walküre, Act I synopsis

The orchestra opens with the strings furiously pulsating. The horns then come and the prelude culminates with Donner’s storm theme from Rheingold. Siegmund enters the stage, exhausted from battle and driven by the storm. He finds refuge in Hunding’s house, a great lodge with an ash tree growing in the center. He collapses in exhaustion heedless of his doom. Sieglinde, the wife of Hunding, thinks Hunding has arrived home from battle, but discovers instead a strange man lying near the hearth. Siegmund cries out for a drink and she gives him water. Upon drinking, the hero begins to recover his strength.

Siegmund is instantly struck by his beautiful hostess and asks who she is. She tells the stranger that she and the house belong to Hunding. Siegmund tells her Hunding has nothing to fear since he has come wounded and weaponless (Waffenlos bin ich: dem wunden Gast wird dein Gatte nicht wehren). She asks to see his wounds, but he tells her they are slight. If only his spear and shield were as strong as his limbs he would not have run from his foes.

She then offers him mead and, though entranced by her, Siegmund is skeptical. She drinks first and then Siegmund drains the drinking horn. Refreshed, Siegmund readies to leave. Sieglinde begs him to stay, but he tells her bad fortune follows him wherever he goes and does not want to bring a curse on the woman as well. She pleads that he cannot bring misfortune where misfortune has its home (Nicht bringst du Unheil dahin, wo Unheil im Hause wohnt!). Siegmund is prevailed upon and agrees to wait for Hunding.

Hunding enters the house as the orchestra plays his plodding and threatening leitmotiv (somewhat reminiscent of the giant’s theme in Rheingold, but with a bit more sophistication). He wonders at the stranger in his house and is struck by the likeness he bears to his wife. Sieglinde explains that she has tended to the stranger’s needs and, content for the moment, Hunding declares his hearth sacred and bids Siegmund to act accordingly (Heilig ist mein Herd: heilig sei dir mein Haus!)

After calling for the evening meal, Hunding asks his unbidden guest to give his name and explain his coming. Siegmund says his name is Wehwalt (woeful one) and that his father was called Wolfe (Siegmund never realizes that Wolfe is Wotan, although during his death scene, many productions show Siegmund and Wotan together in a moment of recognition). He was born a twin, but his sister was presumably killed along with his mother when he and his father were away on a hunt. Since that time he and his father lived as outcasts and were pursued wherever then roamed. Hunding, becoming ever more suspicious of his guest, says he has heard dark rumors of the pair. Siegmund continues his story saying he was eventually separated from his father and after a long search found an empty wolf skin. Since that time he has led a life of wandering, outcast from all society.

Alone and forsaken Siegmund longed for companionship and love. But where ever he went, he found only enmity. What he deemed right, others deemed wrong. The things he rejected others embraced. Everything was outside his ken. Searching for gladness, woe was ever his lot (gehrt’ ich nach Wonne, weckt’ ich nur Weh’). Siegmund notices Sieglinde sympathetic glance as Hunding declares that the Norns (the Norse equivalent to the Greek Furies) did not love him and that no man gladly greets him.

Siegmund finishes his tale by explaining the immediate cause of his arrival. He found a women forced to marry a man she did not love. The hero took up her cause and defended her from her kinsfolk. He killed her brothers and her anger was turned to grief. As a furious storm began to rage, others broke upon him. He stood by the maid, shielding her from their blows. But his shield and spear were hewn from his hands and he was forced to break from the fray, leaving the woman to die upon the bodies of her slain brothers. Sieglinde is mesmerized by his tale for she too had forced into a loveless marriage and has become a slave to a man of an alien tribe.

Hunding rises from his seat in wrath. It was his kinfolk that Siegmund slew and he has lately returned from seeking revenge. He was unable to find the stranger, but now discovers that he is in his house. His house will shelter the stranger for the night (the law of the hearth demands as much), but in the morning Hunding warns Siegmund to arm himself for he chooses the day to avenge his kinfolk’s blood (mit starker Waffe doch wehre dich morgan; zum Kampfe kies ich den Tag). Hunding orders Sieglinde to bed and prepare his night drink. She stands fixed unable to move, Siegmund starring at her the whole while. Finally she prepares the drink and retires to the bedchamber, but not before glancing at the ash tree where a sword has been trust in to the hilt. Hunding threatens Siegmund one last time and follows his wife to bed.

Alone again and weaponless, Siegmund cries out to his father who once foretold that a sword would be provided for him in a time of highest need (Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater, ich fänd’ es in höchster Not). But his desire for the weapon is overpowered by his desire for the woman and his song turns from a martial summons to a mellifluous contemplation of the woman (ein Weib sah ich, wonnig und hehr). He soon realizes that his desire for the sword and the woman are one and the same thing; to have the woman he must have the sword. In desperation he cries out to his father (Wälse! Wälse! Wo ist dein Schwert?). The fire in the hearth flashes and a light flickers on the spot on the ash tree that Sieglinde had starred at before leaving. The light sears his heart as he identifies it with the gleam in the women’s eyes. He breaks in to a rapturous aria (yes, despite his theory, Wagner does have a few of these) about the glow of the Sieglinde’s eyes. But the light fades away and he is left in the gloom.

At this moment Sieglinde reappears, clad in a white gown. She tells Siegmund that she has spiked Hunding’s cup with a hypnotic and bids him to flee and save his life. Siegmund, in a state of ecstacy, says that her coming is life itself (Heil macht mich dein Nah’n!). Upon these words Sieglinde becomes equally ecstatic and tells Siegmund of the sword which was meant for the strongest alone (dem Stärksten allein ward sie bestimmt). A strange man, she says, clad in grey and with one eye covered entered the hall with a sword. Valhalla’s theme rises in the orchestra signaling that stranger was Wotan. The men who were gathered in the hall were cowed by his searing glance, but upon her his eye lingered with yearning regret, sorrow and solace together (mir allein weckte das Auge süß sehnenden Harm, Tränen und Trost zugleich). He thrust the sword into the ash tree’s bole and left without a word. Sieglinde says she knew who the man was, but whether she understood him to be her father or Wotan (or both), we are left to guess.

Knowing that the sword was intended for a great hero, many tried to pull it out. But there it still lies, awaiting the greatest of heroes to claim it. She cries out in both desperation and hope that she would that a friend take the sword and rescue her from her shame and disgrace.

Siegmund embraces her and declares himself to be that friend (Dich selige Frau hält nun der Freund). He vows to wed her and in glorious crescendo declares:

Though you were shamed and woe was my lot
Though I was scorned and you were dishonored
Joyful revenge now laughs in our gladness!
Loud I laugh in fullest delight
I hold you embracing all your glory
Feeling the race of your heart.

At this moment the door of hall breaks open and Sieglinde swoons in terror, thinking they have been discovered. But Siegmund assures her otherwise. Laughing, Spring has entered the hall (siehe, der Lenz lacht in den Saal!). The Spring Motiv, which is heard several times before, is now fully developed. The regenerating Spring overpowers Winter (Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond) bringing the young pair hope, not just of escape, but of a new beginning. Siegmund sings of the power of Spring and how he (Spring) was drawn in by his sister, Love (Zu seiner Schwester schwang er sich her; die Liebe lockte den Lenz). Love (the feminine) is freed by the Spring (the masculine).

Sieglinde upon understanding what is happening tells Siegmund that he is the Spring that she has longed for (Du bist der Lenz, nach dem ich verlangte in frostigen Winters Frist). She says that she recognized Siegmund as soon as he entered the hall. Everything else in her existence was foreign to her, but by his glance she knew him. Not as a brother, but something familiar; someone who she understands at a primal level. In him she found her friend (als in frostig öder Fremde zuerst ich den Freund ersah).

Siegmund, who begins to realize who Sieglinde is, rhapsodizes at the wonder of their union (O süsseste Wonne! Seligstes Weib!) and tells of a dream of love (Minnetraum) that comes into his mind. Sieglinde also slowly starts to understand who Siegmund is. His broad forehead, his voice, and especially the light of his eyes are all things she has known before. She then realizes that Siegmund’s eyes were the same as strange man’s who thrust the sword in the ash tree. She knew then that the stranger was her father. But who is this now before her? She asks if Wehwalt is his true name. Not since you love me, he answers, and bids her to give him any name she chooses. She asks if Wolfe is really is father. Wolfe to craven foxes, he returns, but to those with eyes that shine as brightly as hers, his name is Wälse. Joyously she grasps that he is her brother and that the sword is intended for him. She then gives him rightful name, ‘Siegmund’ (victor).

Siegmund receives the name and grips the sword. Love’s deepest distress and Love’s searing desire burn in his breast urging him to action and death (Heiligster Minne höchste Not, sehnender Liebe sehrende Not brennt mir hell in der Brust, drangt zu Tat und Tod). He names the sword Notung (‘Needful’) and draws it from the ash tree. He presents the sword as a bride gift and so weds the fairest of women. He beckons her to follow him into Spring’s smiling house (Fern von hier folge mir nun, fort in des Lenzes lachendes Haus). She tells him she is Sieglinde, his sister, and that he has won her along with the sword (die eine Schwester gewannst du zu eins mit dem Schwert!). Siegmund bids his sister-bride to his side and prophetically calls upon the gods to allow the Wälsungen line to flourish (Braut und Schwester bist du dem Bruder, so blühe denn Wälsungen-Blut!). The orchestra takes over with the strings frenetically reaching towards the climax. The horns then come in and bring the act to a crashing end. The curtain drops.

3 thoughts on “Die Walküre, Act I synopsis

  1. re the statement, “the men who were gathered in the hall were cowed by his searing glance, but upon her his eye lingered with yearning regret, sorrow and solace together” the question I propose is whether we should interpret this passage as (a) two different glances, eliciting fear in the men and love in the daughter, or (b) the same glance, eliciting the contrasting responses.

    In favor of (b):

    The translation above seems not quite right. The text says, “mir allein weckte das Auge süß sehnenden Harm, Tränen und Trost zugleich” which I would give as “to me alone his eye awakened at once sweetly longing sorrow, tears, and comfort.” Thus, the emphasis is on what was awakened within Sieglinde by Wotan’s glance, not a description of the glance or of Wotan himself.

    In favor of (a), the next stanza says, “he glanced at me, and flashed at them” (auf mich blickt er, und blitzte auf Jene), which would seem to imply two different ways of looking.

    However, (i) this could be a figure of speech, by which a subjectively different response is indicated by objective description; (ii) the phrase is qualified, “after he brandished a sword in his hands” (als ein Schwert in Händen er schwang); thus, it could be that at the new episode of producing the sword, the eyes did have two different “looks,” without implying that this was so in the earlier glance.

  2. Good question. It anticipates a post I plan to write (if I ever complete the synopsis) on Wagner’s use of glances and awakening in the Ring.

    As to your options, I suggest a third:

    (c) Wotan glance and the men and Sieglinde are discrete. He looks at the men and then he looks at her. But the glance itself is the same. That is, they are two different tokens of the same type. Thus the glances are objectively the same, but they are received differently by the men and Sieglinde. They are base mortals who are terrified at the glance from the god, even when his divinity is otherwise veiled. But Sieglinde has Wotan’s blood flowing in her veins and recognizes a kinship instantly. And because of this kinship saw past the terrible appearance and discerned something deeper.

    This is paralleled in the twins coming to recognize each other. Siegmund is rejected wherever he goes, but Sieglinde recognized something kindred in him almost as soon as she first discovered him in the lodge. (Dich grüsste mein Herz mit heiligem Graun, als dein Blick zuerst mir erblühte / My heart greeted you with sacred terror, when your glance first bloomed on me.) Siegmund says the same thing about radiant light from the sword in the tree (Wie der Schein so hehr das Herz mir sangt! Ist es der Blick der blühenden Frau, den dort haftend sie hinter sich liess, als aus dem Saal sie schied?)

    The light from the eyes is the same in all cases. To mortals it is terrifying when it comes form a god or disagreeable when it comes from their human offspring. To those with a spark of divinity it is altogether different.

    Getting back to Wotan and Sieglinde, an interesting question is whether the “sweet longing sorrow, tears, and comfort” is her own or Wotan’s. In other words, are his eyes like a mirror into her own soul or into his? Here again I think the answer is both. She reads he soul, but in reading his reads her own.

    If this is correct, Sieglinde actually has insight into Wotan’s suffering and hope even before he does. For when he appears in the next act he is all jubilation about his two plans. It is only when Fricka unmasks him that he realizes his true despair. And only after witnessing Brünnhilde’s rejection of Valhalla does he see his true hope. For Wagner, Woman intuits the true state of Man.

    But more on this later.

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