It received its premiere at Munich's National Theatre on 26 June 1870 at the insistence of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It was premiered in Wagner's Bayreuther Festspiele as part of the complete cycle on 14 August 1876.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast|
June 26, 1870
(Conductor: Franz Wüllner)
|Cast at premiere of complete cycle|
August 14, 1876
(Conductor: Hans Richter)
|Siegmund||tenor||Heinrich Vogl||Albert Niemann|
|Sieglinde||soprano||Therese Vogl||Josephine Scheffzky|
|Hunding||bass||Kaspar Bausewein||Josef Niering|
|Wotan||bass-baritone||August Kindermann||Franz Betz|
|Fricka||mezzo-soprano||Anna Kaufmann||Frederike Grün-Sadler|
|Brünnhilde||soprano||Sophie Stehle||Amalia Materna|
|Gerhilde||soprano||Karoline Lenoff||Marie Haupt|
|Ortlinde||soprano||Henriette Müller||Marie Lehmann|
|Schwertleite||contralto||Emma Seehofer||Johanna Jachmann-Wagner|
|Helmwige||soprano||Anna Possart-Deinet||Lilli Lehmann|
|Siegrune||mezzo-soprano||Anna Eichheim||Antonie Amann|
|Grimgerde||mezzo-soprano||Wilhelmine Ritter||Hedwig Reicher-Kindermann|
|Rossweisse||mezzo-soprano||Juliane Tyroler||Marie Lammert|
This act hinges on hidden identities that are known to the audience. (Wagner uses this situation in operas that are not part of the Ring: in the operas bearing their respective names, Parsifal does not know his own name, and his son Lohengrin is forbidden to reveal his.) The program tells even the first-time viewer the names of the characters, and, from his leitmotif and his covering his missing eye with his hat, the "stranger" or "old man" (described but not seen on stage) and Wotan, Wolfe and the Wanderer who will appear in Siegfried can be recognized as one and the same individual. Siegmund (whose name means "victory protector or shield") and Sieglinde (meaning "gentle victory") each withhold their own names until the act's climax. (It would appear that, unlike Parsifal, Siegmund does know his own name, though he will not be the first to utter it.)
During a raging storm, Siegmund seeks shelter at the house of the warrior Hunding. Hunding is not present, and Siegmund is greeted by Sieglinde, Hunding's unhappy wife. Siegmund tells her that he is fleeing from enemies. After taking a drink of mead, he moves to leave, claiming to be cursed by misfortune. However, Sieglinde bids him to stay, saying that he can bring no misfortune to the "house where ill-luck lives".
Returning, Hunding reluctantly offers Siegmund the hospitality demanded by custom. Sieglinde, increasingly fascinated by the visitor, urges him to tell his tale. Siegmund describes returning home with his father one day, to find his mother dead and his twin sister abducted. He then wandered with his father until he parted from him as well. One day he found a girl being forced into marriage and fought with the girl's relatives. However, his weapons were broken and the bride was killed, and he was forced to flee to Hunding's home. Initially Siegmund does not reveal his name, choosing to call himself 'Wehwalt', Woeful.
When Siegmund finishes, Hunding reveals that he is one of Siegmund's pursuers. He grants Siegmund a night's stay, but they are to do battle in the morning. Hunding leaves the room with Sieglinde, ignoring his wife's distress. Siegmund laments his misfortune, recalling his father's promise that he would find a sword when he most needed it. Sieglinde returns, having drugged Hunding's drink to send him into a deep sleep. She reveals that she was forced into a marriage with Hunding. During their wedding feast, an old man had appeared and plunged a sword into the trunk of the ash tree in the center of the room, which Hunding and his companions had all failed to remove. She expresses her longing for the hero who could draw the sword and save her. Siegmund expresses his love for her, which she reciprocates, and as she strives to understand her recognition of him, she realises it is in the echo of her own voice, and reflection of her image, that she already knows him. When he speaks the name of his father, Wälse, she declares that he is Siegmund, and that the Wanderer left the sword for him.
Siegmund now easily draws the sword forth, and she tells him she is Sieglinde, his twin sister. He names the blade "Nothung" (or needful, for this is the weapon that he needs for his forthcoming fight with Hunding). As the Act closes he calls her 'bride and sister', and draws her to him with passionate fervour.
Fricka leaves, leaving Brünnhilde with a despairing Wotan. Wotan explains his problems: troubled by the warning delivered by Erda (at the end of Das Rheingold), he had seduced the earth-goddess to learn more of the prophesied doom; Brünnhilde was born to him by Erda. He had raised Brünnhilde and eight other daughters as the Valkyries, warrior maidens who gather the souls of fallen heroes to form an army against Alberich. Valhalla's army will fail if Alberich should ever wield the Ring, which is in Fafner's possession. Using the Tarnhelm the giant has transformed himself into a dragon, lurking in a forest with the Nibelung treasure. Wotan cannot wrest the Ring from Fafner, who is bound to him by contract; he needs a free hero to defeat Fafner in his stead. However, as Fricka pointed out, he can only create thralls (i.e. servants) to himself. Bitterly, Wotan orders Brünnhilde to obey Fricka and ensure the death of his beloved child Siegmund.
Having fled from Hunding's hall Siegmund and Sieglinde enter the mountain pass, where Sieglinde faints in guilt and exhaustion. Brünnhilde approaches Siegmund, telling him of his impending death. Siegmund refuses to follow Brünnhilde to Valhalla when he finds out that Sieglinde cannot accompany him there. Impressed by his courage, Brünnhilde relents and agrees to protect Siegmund instead.
Hunding arrives and attacks Siegmund. Blessed by Brünnhilde, Siegmund begins to overpower Hunding, but Wotan appears and shatters Nothung (Siegmund's sword) with his spear. Disarmed, Siegmund is slain by Hunding. Brünnhilde seizes Sieglinde and the shards of Nothung, and flees on horseback. Wotan looks down on Siegmund's body, grieving. He strikes Hunding dead with a contemptuous gesture, and angrily sets out in pursuit of his lawless daughter.
The other Valkyries assemble on the summit of a mountain, each with a dead hero in her saddlebag. They are astonished when Brünnhilde arrives with a living woman. She begs them to help, but they dare not defy Wotan. Brünnhilde decides to delay Wotan as Sieglinde flees. She also reveals that Sieglinde is pregnant by Siegmund, and names the unborn son Siegfried (meaning "joyous in victory" or "peace in victory").
Wotan arrives in wrath and passes judgement on Brünnhilde: she is to be stripped of her Valkyrie status and become mortal, to be held in a magic sleep on the mountain, prey to any man who happens by. Dismayed, the other Valkyries flee. Brünnhilde begs mercy of Wotan for herself, his favorite child. She recounts the courage of Siegmund and her decision to protect him, knowing that was Wotan's true desire. With the words 'Der diese Liebe mir in's Herz gehaucht' (He who breathed this love into me), introducing the key of E major, she identifies her own actions as Wotan's true will. Wotan consents to her last request: to encircle the mountaintop with magic flame, which will deter all but the bravest of heroes (who, shown through the leitmotif, they both know will be the yet unborn Siegfried). Wotan lays Brünnhilde down on a rock and, in a long embrace, kisses her eyes closed into an enchanted sleep. He summons Loge (the Norse demigod of fire) to ignite the circle of flame that will protect her, then slowly departs in sorrow, after pronouncing: "Whosoever fears the point of my spear shall not pass through the fire." The curtain falls as the Magic Fire Music again resolves into E major.