Wagner’s The Ring is one of the world’s most famous operas. In this excerpt from Who Married Figaro? A Book of Opera Characters (by Joyce Bourne), the internationally renowned soprano Dame Anne Evans talks about her experience of the character Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde is one of the nine Valkyries who appear in the opera, and the daughter of Erda and Wotan, and is the character who ultimately returns The Ring to the Rhine.
It is doubtful if any other role in the operatic repertory demands as much of a singer as does Brünnhilde in The Ring. For a start it has an extraordinarily wide tessitura. Apart from the opening ‘Hojotohos’, with their high Cs, much of the Walküre Brünnhilde lies easily within a mezzo-soprano’s compass. Siegfried, on the other hand, is a true soprano role, particularly in the final, joyous pages where the phrases lead inexorably to the sustained, climactic C. The Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde embraces elements of both the other two operas and calls for huge vocal and physical stamina. Few, if any, sopranos find all three Brünnhildes equally easy to sing; every singer of this role that I know finds the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde the most rewarding, both dramatically and vocally. (On one occasion at least, Bayreuth employed a different Brünnhilde for each opera, but it did not prove satisfactory from a dramatic point of view.)
Not only must a Brünnhilde be master of the actual notes, she must also be master of the text – written by Wagner himself – so that she can use it to make the character live, because in Wagner the drama must come out of the words as well as the music: the two are inseparable. A Brünnhilde must be able to colour her voice to match the changes of mood and situation, which are often reflected in the change of harmonies. For example, when in the Todesverkündigung [’prophecy of death’] from Act 2 of Die Walküre Brünnhilde comes to tell Siegmund of his impending death, she must adopt a grave, dark tone. Then, as she begins to understand the nature of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s great love for each other – an emotion she has never known before – she has to sing with the utmost tenderness and warmth. In Siegfried, Brünnhilde experiences love herself, though, strictly speaking, the long Act 3 scene between Siegfried and Brünnhilde is not a love duet as such, but rather a falling-in-love duet, in which the two characters gradually discover one another.
At the end of Götterdämmerung Act 1, Brünnhilde has to switch almost instantly from sheer joy to whispered terror as she beholds not the expected Siegfried, but a complete stranger – Siegfried disguised as Gunther. Once Siegfried/Gunther has snatched the Ring from her hand, she feels raped – she has assumed, wrongly, that the Ring would protect her from a mere mortal. At the beginning of the next act, Brünnhilde is drained of all life. Harry Kupfer, in his Bayreuth production [first seen in 1988], underlined her humiliation by having her carried on in a net, like an animal that had been hunted down and captured. Only when Gunther announces the impending marriage of Siegfried and Gutrune does she burst into life. Her first reaction is one of alarm, which turns into terrible rage. By the end of the cycle, Brünnhilde has changed from the immortal hoyden of Walküre Act 2 to the wisest of mortal women as she leaps on to the funeral pyre to join Siegfried in death. Together, the music and text are infallible in guiding the singer through the twists and turns of the plot.
I have sung Brünnhilde now in nine productions, all of them very different. If I had to choose just one it would have to be Kupfer’s. His characters were not cardboard cutouts, but real people involved in real situations. Not everyone liked the result, but I was stimulated and excited by it. Such was the strength of the production dramatically that I always felt that if the music were to stop suddenly the play would continue unhindered, so believable were the relationships between the characters. For me the role of Brünnhilde is the Everest of the soprano repertoire. It never fails to fill me with awe.