It's not stretching things too much to suggest that Die Walkure (The Valkyrie) is Wagner's greatest opera. Some might hold out for Tristan und Isolde, with its deathless love music in the famed love-death (Liebestod) but I would hold with Die Walkure as overall the most satisfying and exciting of Wagner's several music-dramas that have continued to hold the stage in the more than a century since his death.
The opera proceeds through three full acts, getting better with each one. The opener features Sieglinde unhappily married to Hunding, and suddenly aware that there is a world out there--romantic as well as pleasant--with the arrival of the stranger "Wehwalt" who turns out to be her long-lost twin brother, Siegmund. The two siblings, known as the Volsungs, are also pawns in Wotan's great plan to recover the ring and the power to run the world with which it ostensibly endows its holder.
Hunding is revealed as a rustic brute which makes somewhat short-sighted the defense of marriage with which Wotan's wife, the goddess Fricka, assails the chief of the gods when she demands that Hunding be triumphant in the ensuing sword fight with Siegmund. Wotan and his warrior-daughter Brunnhilde, who leads the Valkyries who bring the heroes to Valhalla upin their battlefield demise, of course see Siegmund as the hero who deserves to win against Fricka's upholder of marriages, even unhappy ones, and much less the rights of a domestic violence offender. Fricka also has this old-fashioned distaste for the incest in which Siegmund and Sieglinde have engaged.
All these sordid plot elements have implications for the end of the world, no less--das ende, as Wotan intones when he is at his most despondent. Wagner never lets any little piece of his stories go to waste. Wotan in the second act--gazing at the skyscrapers from his high-tower corporate aerie, possibly in Manhattan--is beset with his desire to go with Brunnhilde and favor the hero they both love and then the argument from Fricka to uphold society and propriety (sounds for a moment like George M. Cohan's Marie in his song Mary).
As usual with Wotan's big decisions--in the pre-performance lecture, the dramaturg of the San Francisco Opera informed us that there is a special leitmotif in the Ring for major decisions--he probably gets this one wrong too, just as he failed to heed Erda's prophecy in Das Rhenigold and return the ring and gold to the Rhinemaidens. Here his conceding to Fricka alienates Brunnhilde who defies him and tries to help Siegmund win, after which he must disown her and punish her by placing her within a ring of fire for the first man, presumably heroic, to recover her, now no longer a god.
Through all of this we hear the perhaps too-well-known Ride of the Valkyries but also the always magnificent Wotan's Farewell and the fire music. Beginning with the last part of Act One, the opera becomes exciting and the tension and drive proceed at a high pitch, rarely stopping and never letting you lose your compelling attraction to and interest in the stage proceedings as well as the music. By Act Three, you are totally enraptured by the themes and the acting and the whole experience, much as the megalomaniacal genius Wagner surely intended.
Wagner was a showman and his ideas permit all kinds of staging--traditional, as in the old Met Otto Schenck production to this contemporary or 20th century version set in deteriorating industrial locations as well as corporate boardrooms, all clearly facades for a society that has been corrupted. Patrice Chereau, with Pierre Boulez on the podium, launched this kind of production years ago at the Wagner shrine, Bayreuth, and Francesca Zambello has refined it for the Washington National Opera, where she tested out the first two operas some years back and then the full cycle in San Francisco, the co-producer.
Alan Held was a strong Wotan, without some of the range that makes the leading character more enthralling, while Catherine Foster, for whom the great Christine Goerke filled in last week, was a fine, spirited Brunnhilde. Elizabeth Bishop, a friend of a good friend of ours, was a fine strong Fricka, Meagan Miller and Christopher Ventris gave adequate dimension to the Sieglinde and Siegmund roles.