Alberich, the Nibelung dwarf-king, had stolen the magic Rhine gold from the Rhinemaidens and forged it into a ring giving world power to its wearer. Wotan, ruler of the gods, acquired it from him by trickery and gave it to the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, in payment for building him the mighty fortress, Valhalla. However, Alberich had cursed the ring and its possessors.
In an effort to forestall Alberich’s vengeance, Wotan ordered his nine Valkyrie daughters, to retrieve fallen heroes who will become immortal protectors of Valhalla.
Wotan also sired twin children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, by a mortal woman. He now hopes that Siegmund will be the one who recovers the ring and returns it to the Rhinemaidens, thereby saving the gods.
Fleeing his enemies and seeking refuge, Siegmund enters Hunding’s dwelling and is found by Sieglinde, Hunding’s wife, who gives him a drink and bids him rest awhile. They are unaware that they are twin brother and sister separated at birth.
Hunding returns and offers him the traditional night’s hospitality for travellers. In answer to his host’s questions, Siegmund tells of his mother’s death and the disappearance of his sister and father. He then tells of his flight from a battle with local tribesmen. Hunding angrily exclaims that they are his kinsmen and challenges Siegmund to a fight in the morning. Siegmund wonders when he will find the sword, Nothung, which his father had promised him in his hour of need.
Sieglinde returns, having drugged Hunding into a deep sleep. She tells Siegmund the events of her forced marriage and of the stranger who appeared in her house at the wedding feast. The stranger plunged a sword into the ash tree around which Hunding’s house was built and said that it would belong to the warrior who could remove it. Sieglinde then recognizes Siegmund as her twin brother, and as the two embrace, Siegmund declares he will claim the sword and Sieglinde for himself. He then rushes to the tree and, pulling free the sword, he releases Sieglinde from Hunding’s bondage.
Wotan orders Brünnhilde to assemble her sisters, the Valkyries, to help Siegmund in his battle with Hunding. As Brünnhilde leaves, Fricka, the goddess of marriage and Wotan’s wife, arrives outraged at the incestuous twins and demands that Wotan withdraw his protection of Siegmund. Wotan protests that Siegmund is the champion he has chosen to recover the ring. But Fricka will not be persuaded and he finally gives in.
Brünnhilde returns to a gloomy and despairing Wotan, who tells her of his futile attempts to get the ring and of Alberich’s imminent victory over the gods. Wotan instructs Brünnhilde to ensure that Siegmund dies in battle.
The fleeing lovers rest in the forest. Sieglinde, exhausted, begs to be left to die in shame and falls asleep. Brünnhilde approaches, calling Siegmund by name. Only warriors destined to die in combat can look at her, she explains, and she has come to take him to Valhalla. Determined never to leave Sieglinde, he stands ready to fight. His bravery and defiance win Brünnhilde’s sympathy and she promises her help in spite of Wotan’s orders.
At the sound of Hunding’s horn, Siegmund prepares for battle with Brünnhilde standing close to shield him. Wotan appears and shatters Siegmund’s sword. Defenseless, he is slain by Hunding. Brünnhilde hurriedly gathers up the fragments of the sword and takes Sieglinde to safety. Wotan gazes on his fallen champion and kills Hunding. He disappears, promising punishment for Brünnhilde’s disobedience.
Accompanied by Sieglinde, Brünnhilde is met by the Valkyries and relates the events of Siegmund’s death and Wotan’s anger. Brünnhilde’s sisters reproach her, themselves fearful of Wotan’s wrath.
Sieglinde, begging for help, is advised to hide near Fafner’s cave in the forest for even Wotan fears the place and will not pursue her there. Brünnhilde tells her that she will bear Siegmund’s son, the greatest of all the world’s heroes – Siegfried. Sieglinde takes the fragments of Siegmund’s sword and departs.
Wotan appears and orders Brünnhilde to come forward. Henceforth, she is no longer a Valkyrie, but a mortal woman, and forever banished from the company of her sisters. The others scatter in terror.
Wotan is overcome with sadness and affection for his favourite daughter. But she must be punished. She will be put into a deep sleep until a worthy hero awakens her and wins her love. Brünnhilde begs Wotan for protection while she is in her defenseless sleep by encircling her with fire. He gently kisses her eyes, bidding her farewell, and she loses consciousness. Striking a rock, he calls to Loge, god of fire, to bring forth his ring of flames. Holding his spear aloft, Wotan declares with a last sorrowful gaze at Brünnhilde that only the one who does not know fear will be able to cross the ring of fire.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Atom Egoyan, set and costume designer Michael Levine, and lighting designer David Finn. Photo: Michael Cooper.