Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
Opera Number Four of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (a.k.a. the Ring Cycle)
First performance: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 17 August 1876 (also the first performance as part of the completed Ring Cycle)
Who's Who – Characters and voice parts
Norns (daughters of Erda)
First Norn (contralto)
Second Norn (mezzo-soprano)
Third Norn (soprano)
Siegfried, son of Siegmund and Sieglinde (tenor)
Gibichungs (children of Gibich and Grimhilde)
Hagen, Alberich's son (tenor)
The plot thus far:
(Das Rheingold): Alberich, king of the Nibelung dwarf race, stole the all-powerful Rhinegold and forged a Ring from it. After the gods forced him to give up both the Ring and the Tarnhelm (a magic helmet), Alberich got even by cursing the Ring. The one who possesses the Ring will be obsessed with protecting it, while those not possessing the Ring will be overcome with jealousy and envy. The gods, not being immune to this curse, had to give away the Ring to avoid destroying themselves, so Wotan gave the Ring and Tarnhelm to the giant Fafner, who in turn used the power of the Tarnhelm to transform himself into a dragon to protect the Ring.
(Die Walküre): Wotan then fathered the nine Valkyries, as well as the mortal twins Siegmund and Sieglinde. After being separated since early childhood, Siegmund and Sieglinde met and fell in love. Sieglinde, however, was married to the cruel Hunding. Siegmund planned to take Sieglinde away, and Wotan planned to send his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to help Siegmund fight. Unfortunately, he had an obligation to uphold Hunding's marriage rights, so he instructed Brünnhilde to help Hunding in the fight. Brünnhilde went with the original plan and helped Siegmund, so Wotan had to step in to ensure Hunding's victory. Hunding killed Siegmund, Wotan killed Hunding, and then Wotan realized that he had to punish Brünnhilde for going against him. Wotan made Brünnhilde a mortal woman and placed her on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire. Any hero brave enough to step through the flames would be able to claim Brünnhilde as his wife.
(Siegfried): Sieglinde and Siegmund's brief time together led to the conception and birth of a son, Siegfried. Sieglinde died in childbirth, so Siegfried was raised by Mime, Alberich's brother. Mime, every bit as power-hungry as his brother, used Siegfried to get past the dragon Fafner and retrieve the Ring for him. After slaying the great dragon, Siegfried found that he could hear Mime's thoughts – Mime planned to kill him. Siegfried killed Mime, took the Ring, and then headed for Brünnhilde's rock. He got through the flames and awakened Brünnhilde, whom he has now claimed as his bride.
So, Siegfried, you slayed the dragon and got the girl... what are you going to do now?
As the opera opens, the three Norns weave the rope of destiny, the rope that controls the future of the world. As they work, they discuss previous events, specifically those relating to Wotan, the Ring, and the Ring’s past. Suddenly, the rope breaks, and the Norns become distraught. They know that their time has run out, so they return to Erda, the earth goddess. As the Norns vanish, Siegfried and Brünnhilde come into view. Siegfried is preparing to go out into the world to perform heroic deeds, but first, he gives Brünnhilde the Ring as a symbol of his love for her. Brünnhilde gives her horse to Siegfried, and he starts his descent from Brünnhilde's rock.
Act I opens in the Hall of the Gibichungs, a familial tribe ruled by Gunther and his sister Gutrune. Their half-brother Hagen (a son of Alberich) joins them. Gunther may rule the tribe, but he admits that Hagen is wiser than he is. Gunther wants reassurance from Hagen that he has ruled the Gibichungs well, but Hagen points out that Gunther doesn’t have a wife, and Gutrune doesn't have a husband - no spouse means no heir. After Gunther asks what he and his sister could do, Hagen tells them about a great hero, Siegfried, and a beautiful woman, Brünnhilde. Hagen hatches a scheme: they will give Siegfried a potion that will make him forget about any other woman that he might love, and will become devoted to Gutrune. They will then enlist his help in retrieving Brünnhilde from her rock. Gunther will marry Brünnhilde, Gutrune will marry Siegfried, and everyone will be happy.
Meanwhile, Siegfried's journeys have brought him to the Gibichung realm. Gunther greets the hero, offering friendship, land, and his inheritance to the newcomer. Siegfried replies that he can't offer anything other than his sword, but Hagen is quick to remind him that he controls the legendary Nibelung treasure. Hagen tells Siegfried about the Tarnhelm's magic, explaining that it can transport the wearer from place to place, and will allow the wearer to become any form he wishes. At this point, Gutrune returns with the love potion for Siegfried. She offers it as a drink of welcome, and it has the desired effect on Siegfried almost immediately. He professes his love for Gutrune, who, feigning confusion and modesty, leaves the hall. Gunther tells Siegfried that he can marry Gutrune if he'll help Gunther win Brünnhilde. Siegfried, now unable to remember Brünnhilde, agrees to help. He'll use the Tarnhelm to take Gunther's form, and will then pass through the flames to get Brünnhilde. Gunther and Siegfried make a blood oath of brotherhood, and then set off for Brünnhilde's rock, leaving Gutrune to dream of her impending nuptials. Hagen, however, imagines what he will do with the Ring once Siegfried gets it back from Brünnhilde.
Brünnhilde, unaware of what has happened below, thinks about Siegfried. Suddenly, she hears her sister Waltraute approaching. Waltraute is not the bearer of good news; after Siegfried broke his spear, Wotan ordered that the tree of life be cut down, and that the logs from it be piled around Valhalla. The only hope for the gods is for Brünnhilde to return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. Brünnhilde refuses to do this, since the Ring is a symbol of Siegfried's love for her, a love that means more to her than the fates of the gods.
As Brünnhilde watches the flames that protect her, Siegfried suddenly bursts through them in the form of Gunther. Siegfried/Gunther declares that Brünnhilde must come with him since he has passed through the ring of fire to claim her. Brünnhilde, not recognizing Siegfried through his disguise, threatens him with the power of the Ring. Not impressed by the threat, Siegfried/Gunther pulls the Ring from her finger as Brünnhilde realizes her defeat. The two head into the nearby cave for the night; Siegfried says that he will keep his sword between himself and Brünnhilde all night, since he has sworn an oath of brotherhood with Gunther.
Elsewhere, Hagen sleeps. A vision of his father Alberich appears and tells Hagen the story of how Wotan stole the Ring. Through his son, Alberich hopes to avenge himself by retrieving the Ring, a task that Hagen swears to complete. As the morning dawns, Siegfried enters, having used the Tarnhelm to transport himself back instantly. Hagen calls for Gutrune, and Siegfried then tells them both how he passed through the flames surrounding Brünnhilde – his love for Gutrune gave him great strength. Gutrune wants to hear more about Siegfried's great success, but his answers to her questions are confusing. He says that Brünnhilde submitted to Gunther, who he was posing as, but that he also remained with Gutrune. As Brünnhilde and Gunther's boat approaches, Hagen calls together the Gibichungs, telling them to prepare for the arrival of Gunther and his bride. He instructs them to be loyal to Brünnhilde, and to avenge her should she be wronged.
Brünnhilde enters the hall with Gunther, and is shocked to find Siegfried there. She asks who Gutrune is, and Siegfried replies that she is his wife. Noticing the Ring on Siegfried's finger, she asks how he could have gotten it; "Gunther" had stolen it from her the night before. Gunther, of course, knows nothing about this, and Siegfried is unable to reveal the truth because of his oath with Gunther. Hagen, meanwhile, is moving through the crowd of Gibichung subjects, telling them to remember Brünnhilde's claims against Siegfried. General confusion reigns. Brünnhilde accuses Siegfried of breaking his marriage vows, but he doesn't realize that she's referring to his vows with her, not those he has taken with Gutrune. Siegfried denies having broken his vows, saying that he wouldn't have endangered his blood oath with Gunther. Siegfried takes Gunther aside and tells him to give Brünnhilde time to calm down, since it's possible that he wasn't completely disguised by the Tarnhelm.
After Siegfried leaves, Hagen offers to kill Siegfried for Brünnhilde, but she knows that he would fail without help. She then reveals the secret to killing Siegfried: he is protected by magic, but his back isn't protected because he wouldn't turn his back on an enemy. If Siegfried were to be wounded in the back, he would be vulnerable. Gunther, unsure of plotting against Siegfried, wavers until Hagen reminds him of the Ring's great power. They agree to hide their plan from Gutrune, and will instead tell her that a boar killed Siegfried during a hunt. The two couples then make their way to the altar to be married.
As Siegfried's horn call approaches, the three Rhinemaidens swim about and call for a hero to return their stolen gold. Siegfried enters, slightly lost and with no quarry yet. The Rhinemaidens offer to catch something for him in exchange for the Ring, but he refuses. The Rhinemaidens try flirting with him and warning him of the curse attached to the Ring, but Siegfried says that he would only give up the Ring for love. As the Rhinemaidens swim away, Siegfried is joined by Hagen, Gunther, and a number of Gunther's subjects. Siegfried notices that Gunther is downcast, and tells him the story of Nothung's forging, the subsequent encounter with Fafner, and the advice of the Forest Bird that allowed Siegfried to spoil Mime's plans. Hagen then adds a magic herb to Siegfried's cup of wine, and Siegfried suddenly remembers Brünnhilde. Hagen points out two ravens to Siegfried, and then stabs his spear into his back when he turns. Siegfried, mortally wounded, falls to the ground and remembers his love for Brünnhilde. Genuinely grief-stricken, Gunther cares for Siegfried as he dies. The Gibichungs then lift Siegfried's body on to his shield, and the group begins a somber procession back to the main hall.
Gutrune is beside herself after learning of Siegfried's death. Hagen tells her that a wild boar had killed her husband, but she accuses Gunther of murdering Siegfried. Gunther then reveals that Hagen had killed him, and Hagen admits that it's true. What's more, he wants Siegfried's ring as a reward, but Gunther refuses to indulge him. Hagen and Gunther fight, and Gunther is killed. Hagen then approaches Siegfried's body to remove the Ring, but Siegfried's dead hand rises away from his body. While everyone stares in horror at Siegfried, Brünnhilde enters. The Rhinemaidens have told her what happened, and she then tells Gutrune that Siegfried had been her husband before he even met Gutrune. Gutrune puts the pieces together and is furious with Hagen for having manipulated everyone.
Brünnhilde asks the Gibichungs to construct a funeral pyre for Siegfried. She takes the Ring from Siegfried and puts it on her finger. She plans to ride her horse into Siegfried's burning funeral pyre, and the Rhinemaidens can reclaim their treasure from the ashes. As she dreams of being reunited with Siegfried, Brünnhilde charges into the flames. The fire engulfs the hall, and the Rhine then overflows. Two of the Rhinemaidens pull Hagen under the water with them, as the third triumphantly reclaims the Ring. The fire, meanwhile, has reached Valhalla, consuming the gods and their great home. The time of the gods has ended.
Phew. Only 14 or so hours later, and the Ring Cycle has come to an end. Wagner's version of Ragnarok is incredibly different from the Norse myth. The actual myth tells of a great war that resulted in the death of most of the gods (see Ragnarok). Wagner's version is more subdued, dealing more with fate and destiny than anything else. After having his spear broken by Siegfried in the previous opera, Wotan resigns himself to the fact that a number of foretold events are coming to pass, all of which will lead to the gods falling out of power. The only way to stop the course of events would be for the Ring to be returned to the Rhinemaidens, but since Siegfried has bested him, Wotan sees no way of getting Siegfried to do this. The Ring's curse has no effect on Siegfried or Brünnhilde; Siegfried willingly gave it to Brünnhilde out of love, and love is the only power strong enough to overcome the Ring. Waaaaaay back in Das Rheingold, Alberich had to renounce love in order to steal the Rhinegold and create the Ring. Here, Brünnhilde returns the Ring by immolating herself. She has known true love; life without Siegfried would be empty, even with the tremendous power that the Ring could bring her. Cyclical, eh?
Musically, Götterdämmerung finds the various leitmotifs introduced in the previous operas being woven together as events near their conclusion. Highlights here include Siegfried's Rhine Journey, Siegfried's Funeral March, and the Finale. Götterdämmerung also contains one of the few choruses of the cycle, as Hagen calls together the Gibichungs to welcome Brünnhilde.
Parallel characters in Norse Mythology:
Siegfried = Sigurd
Brünnhilde = Brynhild
Gunther = Gunnar
Gutrune = Gudrun
Hagen = Guttorm
Alberich = Andvari/Giuki
The mythological basis for the entire Ring Cycle is generally Norse mythology, but the names have been changed to their German equivalents. For more info on the myth behind the Ring Cycle, see Mythological origins of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.