In Wagner’s tale Brünnhilde is one of the Valkyries who is born from a union between the God Wotan (Odin) and Erda (personification of the earth).
The Valkyrie are the daughter angels of that union whose job it is to cheer on, help and escort earthly champions to Valhalla – Woton’s Hall of Heroes.
In Die Walküre Wotan initially instructs Brünnhilde (his most trusted and favorite angel warrior daughter) to protect Siegmund; his secret son by a mortal mother. Yes, Wotan get’s around, he travels a lot.
However, no one, but Woton knows that Seigmund is his son. He sort of abandoned him one dark and stormy night and thought he could make amends by sending in the Valkyries to protect him without anyone knowing.
Why does Seigmund need protection? He’s going to fight a man who gave him a place to stay and then slept with his wife the man’s wife Sieglinde; who he captured in a battle with his enemy – the Volsung. As it turns out Seigmund is his enemy and the man figures it out cause as he sees, ‘they both have the serpent in their eyes.’
When Fricka, Wotan’s heavenly wife of all things good, moral and domestic protests, cause she hears the prayers of a jilted husband, she forces Wotan to have Siegmund die for adultery and incest instead.
Yes, it’s a long story, by some chance Siegmund hooks up and runs off with; who he doesn’t know at the time, his long lost TWIN sister Sieglinde, and he is going to kill her abusive husband who is also his sworn enemy with the help, he hopes, of the Valkyrie; specifically, Brünnhilde, (who is also his half sister), cause you see Sieglinde is now pregnant by I-thought-you-looked-familiar TWIN BROTHER Siegmund. Plus, he finds out Woton is really his father – it’s all very complicated, but trust me, it’s brilliant how all of this unfolds layer by layer in the opera (remember there was no internet in 1870).
Anyway, Fricka tells Woton if you break the laws of justice and morals by defending Siegmund you break your own spear. In other words, no one’s going to believe in you any more. Rule of law. Woton argues with her about love vs morals (irony), about his plan for mortal men to be free of the gods, that Siegmund was going to be the one to regain the ring (see the first opera), but she complains you gotta have standards and stick to them or everything falls apart, and if you help him how will he ever be free?
In the end Wonton agrees.
So Woton tells Brünnhilde there’s been a change of plans, Siegmund must defend himself alone which means he will die.
Brünnhilde disobeys Woton mostly because Sieglinde goes on and on about love and that it is more important than anything else.
Convinced, like her pop, about love Brünnhilde tries to protect Siegmund in the battle, but fails at the last minute cause Wonton shows up in disguise and breaks Siegmund’s sword with his spear. This is actually a very cool, but sad scene, and even though you know this is going to happen it’s still a surprise when he shows up- that’s just good story telling.
BTW- Tolkien loved this opera – some of this should sound very familiar.
Shocked that Wonton himself shows up Brünnhilde runs off with Sieglinde who is now very pregnant, along with the shards of Siegmund’s sword, Nothung (needless, needful, need nothing take your pick of intent or translation) which was given to him by his father Walsa a.k.a. Woton! The plot thickens…
Brünnhilde manages to hide; with the help of her sister angels, girls-this-baby’s-on-the-way-Sieglinde in secret with a skillful, but beaten down Gnome named Mime – who you saw in the last opera and will plenty of in the next.
Now Brünnhilde has to face the wrath of her father, cause there’s really no place to hide from a god.
Things are pretty tense cause Brünnhilde disobeyed and Fricka is on his back so Wonton is now determined to punish Brünnhilde in no small way and as an example to all.
Wonton’s penalty is to put Brünnhilde into an enchanted sleep where she will be awaken and claimed by any mortal man who happens to cross her path and she will be forced to serve only him.
In other words, Woton is going to make Brünnhilde mortal, all her heavenly powers will be gone and she will be the object at the whim of any man who finds her, and remember in those days mortal women were little more than property and servants to the will of men.
Brünnhilde is naturally a little freaked out, she argues that what she did was in obedience to Wonton’s true will and does not deserve such a fate, and that she did it for the sake of love. Which Wonton was just arguing in defense of with Fricka. Brünnhilde hits a soft spot in Woton’s heart.
Now Woton is stuck between a rock and a hard place – but finds a compromise, he decides to still make Brünnhilde mortal, but he will protect her enchanted sleep, he calls on his pal Loge (Loki) to surround the rock with magical fire and sentences her to await awakening by a hero who does not know fear, a mortal who is freer than he himself, a god.
Which is pretty cool, and Brünnhilde accepts his decision and her fate, she does become mortal, but mortal life ain’t easy, we find that out two operas later.
In the above clip Brünnhilde has just made her case for truth and love, Woton must now say goodbye to the apple of his eye – she is about to undergo spiritual death in order to become mortal and suffer; being heavenly creatures they have no idea what that entails. Saying goodbye to an immortal is something brand new to Woton, it seems to stir something he hasn’t ever experienced before – regret and loss.
This is truly one of the most beautiful and dynamic pieces of music Wagner ever wrote, the pain and anguish a parent suffers when saying goodbye to a child who must die because of his actions, his decisions, the rules he chose to live by and taught his child to value will certainly bring tears to your eyes.
In those moments Woton experiences what it is like to be human.
In essence and in legend, this is the first Memorial Day save angels and gods.
If you disagree with any of the text let me know, it’s been a while since I saw the complete opera, (if you’re interested in going to see this, let me know) I may have missed or confused a few parts of the plot. There are many performances of Woton’s Farewell, but this is one of my favorite – lucky to still find it on youtube.