The second musical drama in the Ring Cycle has particular relevance to Zurich. Richard Wagner composed Die Walküre just up the hill from the city’s opera house.

Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan) and Camilla Nylund (Brünnhilde)
© Monika Rittershaus

Wagner was “a one-man artistic movement” (Matthew Boyden), a figure so powerful that his influence was felt by all of his contemporaries and major successors. Composer Hugo Wolf was to write: “What remains for me to do? He has left me no room, like a mighty tree that chokes with its shade the sprouting young growths under its widely spreading branches.” Provoking as much antipathy as he did adulation in his day, Wagner has since been proven a superbly gifted composer, insightful dramatist, stage designer and conductor in an unprecedented combination. Wagner reinvented opera as music-drama, marked by an extraordinary interaction of principle musical themes, the sublime Leitmotif. While some critics contend that he prefigured the “monstrous triumphalism of the Third Reich,” it is undeniable that his scores bridged the Romantic with modern genres. 

Wagner’s monumental Die Walküre, the second musical drama of his Das Ring des Nibelungen, was composed in 1851-56, and was first performed in Munich in 1862. The work has particular relevance to Zurich, inasmuch as Wagner lived here between 1849 and 1858, where he not only composed Walküre, but also saw its first act performed in the city’s historic Hotel Baur au Lac. The full opera was premiered in Munich in 1870, but Wagner also wrote the music to Das Rheingold and sketches for both Siegfried and Parsifal in Zurich, indeed, only some few minutes away from the opera house where they are now performed. Given the size and scope of his operas, but considering that he was also writing essays, librettos and engaged in lengthy correspondence, one can well understand Emperor Ludwig’s assessment of Wagner as a “god among men”. 

Eric Cutler (Siegmund), Camilla Nylund (Brünnhilde) and Daniela Köhler (Sieglinde)
© Monika Rittershaus

Die Walküre – full of disguises, magic, and extraordinarily vivid colour – demands a complete suspension of disbelief. Drawn from Norse mythology, a palatial Valhalla, the hall of slain warriors under the auspices of the god, Wotan, serves as backdrop to most of the three-act, five-hour work in Andreas Homoki’s new production. Christian Schmidt’s sombre, neoclassical set is as simple as the score is complex. That said, the production’s seemingly forever-rotating stage – almost a standard in this house – is exasperatingly predictable. 

The opera tells the story of the twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde – children fathered by Wotan – who have grown up separately, entirely unaware of the other’s existence. Inextricably drawn to one another from Act 1, they suffer through the machinations of the gods through the rest of the opera. It was fitting to see the massive tree trunk that dominates the first act as the place in which the leader of the Gods, Wotan, has hidden a great sword, a weapon which Siegmund extracts before fleeing with his sister/lover.  

Christof Fischesser (Hunding), Eric Cutler (Siegmund), Camilla Nylund (Brünnhilde), Tomasz Konieczny
© Monika Rittershaus

The singers were invariably superb. As Siegmund, Eric Cutler sang a stunning role debut, and Daniela Köhler was no less a convincing and coquettish Sieglinde. Christof Fischesser gave a strong portrayal of Siegfried's enemy (and Sieglinde's husband), Hunding. Tomasz Konieczny sang a hefty, broad-based Wotan, ably portraying the bouts of conscience that invariably haunt anyone in a position of power. Camilla Nylund debuted as Brünnhilde, Wotan’s errant daughter, who so moves her father’s compassion that he spares her life in Act 3, albeit consigning her to a magical fire, one through which “only the noblest and most innocent may pass”. Nylund’s rich soprano, and that closing fire were particularly impressive… just a few wisps of smoke on a lumpy hillock centre-stage appeared first, then fire-like veins crept up its sides to reflect an ill-fated destiny. 

Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan) and the Valkyries
© Monika Rittershaus

The Valkyries themselves – several of them in debut roles – gave a coordinated and resonant delivery. Each wore a horse's head in lieu of a helmet. Given those bulky attributes, their sheer numbers on stage posed a challenge, but they skirted any real muddle, and underscored the busiest scenes with resounding vocal colours. Under conductor Gianandrea Noseda’s seasoned baton, the huge configuration of some 140 musicians of the Philharmonia Zürich met and mastered fine dynamic control, and gave a consistently invigorating performance.