Opera Number Three of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (a.k.a. the Ring Cycle)
First performance: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 16 August 1876 (also the first performance as part of the completed Ring Cycle)
To bring you up to speed:
(Das Rheingold): Alberich, king of the Nibelung dwarf race, stole the all-powerful Rhinegold and forged a Ring from it. After being forced to give the Ring and his Tarnhelm (magic helmet) to the gods, Alberich put a nasty curse on the Ring – the one who possesses the Ring will become obsessed with protecting it at all costs, while anyone who doesn't have the Ring will be consumed with jealousy. This curse applies to the gods, so Wotan had to give the Ring to the giant Fafner in order to save the gods from the curse. Fafner, falling under the power of the Ring, transformed himself into a dragon and retreated to a cave to guard his treasure.
(Die Walküre): Some years later, Wotan fathered a number of children: the nine Valkyries and the twins Sieglinde and Siegmund. After many years of separation, Sieglinde and Siegmund met and fell in love. Siegmund planned to take Sieglinde away from her cruel husband Hunding, and Wotan sent Brünnhilde to help Siegmund fight. Fricka then pointed out that he had an obligation to uphold Hunding's marriage rights. Wotan realized that Fricka was right, and he told Brünnhilde to assist Hunding instead. Brünnhilde, however, decided to help Siegmund instead. During the fight, Wotan broke Siegmund's sword, giving Hunding victory. He then killed Hunding himself, and realized that he had to punish Brünnhilde. He made her a mortal woman, and cast a spell of sleep over her. Loge then surrounded the sleeping Brünnhilde with a ring of fire, so that only the bravest of heroes will be able to awaken her.
Sieglinde died while giving birth to Siegfried, the offspring of her brief incestuous liaison with her twin brother Siegmund. Siegfried has been raised by Mime, Alberich's brother. Mime is every bit as power hungry as his brother, and he dreams of using Siegfried to get the Ring for himself; he will then be able to enslave the Nibelungs as Alberich did.
Who's Who - Characters and voice parts
The Wanderer (Wotan in disguise) (baritone)
Erda, Goddess of the Earth (contralto)
Mime, Alberich's brother (tenor)
Siegfried, son of Siegmund and Sieglinde (tenor)
Forest Bird (soprano)
Fafner, in the form of a dragon (bass)
As the scene opens, we find Mime busily forging a sword for Siegfried. He's discouraged; Siegfried is incredibly strong and usually breaks the swords that Mime crafts for him. Mime knows that the only sword Siegfried couldn't break is Nothung, the sword of Wotan and Siegmund. Conveniently, Mime has the broken remnants of Nothung hidden in his cave, but he lacks the skill needed to fix the sword. Mime dreams of being able to forge Nothung, since he knows that Siegfried would then be able to defeat Fafner and get the Ring for him.
Enter Siegfried, pursued by a bear... okay, leading a bear. Siegfried doesn't believe that Mime has actually been working on a new sword for him, so he encourages the bear to attack Mime. Mime then hands over the completed sword, and Siegfried sends the bear away. Siegfried berates Mime, saying that he can't stand the sight of him, and isn't even sure why he keeps coming back to the cave. Mime says that it might be because Siegfried loves him, but Siegfried is disgusted by that idea. Siegfried then has a revelation: Mime can tell him about his parents. Siegfried threatens Mime, who then tells Siegfried the story of his birth. Many years before, Mime had found a pregnant woman in the forest. He brought her to his cave, where the woman died during childbirth. However, before she died, she had told Mime to name her son Siegfried, and she had given Mime the broken pieces of the child's father's sword. Skeptical, Siegfried asks for proof, and Mime reveals the pieces of Nothung. Siegfried, overjoyed, commands Mime to forge his father's sword – with this sword, he'll be able to leave the cave (and Mime) and never return. Siegfried heads out, leaving Mime to contemplate his lose-lose situation. If he forges the sword and Siegfried leaves forever, then Mime will be unable to manipulate the youth into getting the Ring from Fafner's cave. On the other hand, if he doesn't forge the sword, he knows from past experience that Siegfried is likely to hurt him, and will very possibly kill him. At the moment, there is no option, because Mime knows that he isn't skilled enough to forge the sword.
As Mime broods, Wotan enters in a disguise. He says that he's known simply as the Wanderer, and Mime tells him that he can go right on wandering. Wotan points out that most good people offer him shelter. Knowing that Mime is a suspicious guy by nature, Wotan says that he'll answer any questions that Mime has, and, if he doesn't answer to Mime's satisfaction, he'll offer his head. Mime agrees to these terms and begins to ask a series of questions about the Nibelungs, the giants, and the gods. Wotan answers each in succession, giving the history of the Ring and detailing many of the events of Das Rheingold. It's then Wotan's turn to ask Mime a series of questions that turn out to be about Siegfried's past. Wotan's last question is a stumper: who will forge Nothung for Siegfried to wield? Mime doesn't know the answer, and believes that Wotan will now kill him. However, Wotan spares Mime's life and tells him that Nothung can only be forged by one who knows no fear.
Mime sits alone, pondering the Wanderer's words. Siegfried then returns and demands Nothung. Mime is preoccupied by the thought that the one who knows no fear will soon kill him, but then he realizes that Siegfried is the fearless one of whom the Wanderer spoke. Mime decides to teach Siegfried fear and figures that a terrifying dragon like Fafner would do the trick. Siegfried, eager to fight the dragon, again demands his sword, but Mime admits that he can't forge it. Siegfried decides that if you want something done right, do it yourself, so he begins forging Nothung on his own. As Siegfried works at the anvil, Mime realizes that he'll need a way to kill Siegfried after the youth has killed Fafner, and he begins brewing a poison. He dreams of enslaving the Nibelungs once he has the Ring. Siegfried finishes his mighty sword and strikes the anvil with it; the anvil splits in two. Mime cowers as Siegfried proudly displays Nothung.
As the curtain rises on Act II, we find Alberich watching over Fafner's cave, trying to figure out a way to retrieve the treasure. The Wanderer enters, but his disguise doesn't fool Alberich for a second. The two argue about the past, until Wotan tells Alberich that he should take matters up with his brother, Mime, who is bringing Siegfried to kill Fafner. Wotan suggests that they wake up Fafner, and Alberich agrees. They wake the dragon, but Fafner goes right back to sleep. Wotan warns Alberich again about Mime and Siegfried's impending arrival, saying that Alberich will need to deal with the problem and he leaves.
At dawn, Mime and Siegfried approach the cave, unaware that Alberich is hiding nearby. Mime tries in vain to make Siegfried afraid of Fafner, but Siegfried remains full of bravado. Mime then tells Siegfried that, when he actually sees the dragon, he'll know fear and he'll realize how much Mime loves him. Siegfried is disgusted by the thought of Mime's love, and he orders Mime to leave his sight forever; he then adds that he'll send Fafner after the dwarf, and will kill the dragon only after it has eaten Mime. Mime exits, hoping to himself that Siegfried and Fafner will kill each other.
Siegfried lies down to wait for Fafner to wake up, thrilled to be rid of Mime forever. As Siegfried voices his curiosity about his parents, a Forest Bird begins singing. Siegfried makes a flute out of a reed, but he can't duplicate the bird's song. He then pulls out his horn and awakens Fafner. Siegfried and the dragon taunt each other, and then fight. Siegfried succeeds in stabbing the beast through the heart, and Fafner has a lengthy death scene in which he relates the story behind the Rhinegold. Just as he is about to tell Siegfried about where he came from, Fafner dies. Siegfried finds that he has some of Fafner's blood on his hand, and when he puts his hand to his mouth to clean off the blood, he discovers that Fafner's blood allows him to understand the Forest Bird. The bird tells his that the treasure in the cave now belongs to him; in addition, if he can find the Tarnhelm, he'll be able to do magic, and if he finds the Ring, he'll rule the world. He enters the cave to find his treasure, and Mime and Alberich come out of hiding. They fight over which one of them can claim the Ring until Siegfried comes out of the cave with both the Tarnhelm and the Ring. Alberich quickly leaves.
Siegfried again hears the Forest Bird, who tells him not to trust Mime. He also discovers that Fafner's blood allows him to hear thoughts. As Mime lavishes affection on Siegfried, Siegfried hears Mime's plan to poison him and cut off his head. Siegfried kills Mime and takes his body into Fafner's cave, placing it on top of the gold that remains there. He then exits the cave, and the Forest Bird tells him about Brünnhilde, who lies asleep on a rock surrounded by fire. Siegfried is intrigued, and the bird tells him that only someone who knows no fear will be able to break through the flames, and that Brünnhilde will then marry that hero. Siegfried knows that he is fearless, and the Forest Bird leads him towards Brünnhilde's rock.
Act III opens during a raging storm. Wotan, still disguised as the Wanderer, stands before the earth goddess Erda's cave and summons her. She awakens, and the Wanderer says that he is seeking knowledge. Erda asks him why he didn't go to the Norns, or to her daughter Brünnhilde. The Wanderer says that the Norns don't have the ability to change the course of events, and that Wotan has punished Brünnhilde by placing her into a deep sleep. This news comes as a surprise to Erda, who is confused about the fact that Wotan would punish Brünnhilde for being defiant when he himself had been defiant many times. Wotan tells Erda that the end of the reign of the gods is drawing near – Siegfried has the Ring, and he will awaken Brünnhilde, who will then redeem the world. Realizing that Erda cannot help him, Wotan allows Erda to go back to sleep in her cave.
Day has now broken, and Siegfried approaches. The Wanderer stops him and begins to question him. Where is Siegfried going? How did he learn about Brünnhilde? Siegfried eventually loses his patience with the stranger, telling him to either point out the way to Brünnhilde's rock or get out of the way. Wotan tells Siegfried to respect his elders, but Siegfried says that he's already killed one old man who got in his way. He then mocks Wotan's hat, and notices that the stranger is missing an eye. Annoyed by Wotan, Siegfried tries to get by him, but Wotan begins telling Siegfried about the terrifying fire on the rock. He then tells Siegfried that his spear has destroyed Nothung before, and can easily do so again. Siegfried, believing that he has found his father's killer, strikes Wotan's spear. The spear shatters, and Wotan admits defeat. Siegfried sounds his horn call and proceeds toward Brünnhilde's rock.
Siegfried reaches the rock where both Brünnhilde and her horse lie sleeping, and easily passes through the fire. Siegfried is surprised when he first sees Brünnhilde; she is clad in armor, and Siegfried thinks she's actually a man. However, when he picks up her shield (which had been hiding her womanly frame), Siegfried knows that this is no man. Siegfried has very little experience with women, and is unsure of what to do to awaken Brünnhilde, but he soon realizes that he should kiss her. Brünnhilde wakes up and asks who has brought her out of her slumber. Siegfried tells her his name, and Brünnhilde explains that she had protected his mother while she was pregnant with him. Brünnhilde sees her horse and is reminded of her past as an immortal. She's ashamed that she's human and begs Siegfried to leave her there. Siegfried won't have any of that, and the destined lovers share a soaring duet.
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Up Next: Götterdämmerung
I think even Jerry Springer would be hard-pressed to make much sense of Siegfried's life thus far. First off, there's the fact that Siegfried's parents were brother and sister. He was then orphaned before he was even five minutes old. He treats Mime pretty horribly - allowable behavior because Mime himself is truly despicable. Siegfried rescues his destined wife Brünnhilde, who is also HIS AUNT (Sieglinde and Siegmund were her half-siblings through Wotan). It's all kind of messed up, which of course makes for great opera. By the end of the opera, Siegfried has evolved from an impulsive youth to an almost-invincible hero heading towards his destiny.
Male voices dominate Siegfried, often with two characters in identical voice ranges sharing a scene - in fact, most scenes are dialogues between only two characters. Despite this constraint, Siegfried contains some truly outstanding passages. Act II has the "Forest Murmurs" scene, in which Siegfried soliloquizes about his parents while the sounds of the forest surround him. Siegfried's Forging Song in Act I, Scene 3 is spirited and joyful, capturing Siegfried's elation, and similarly joyful is the final Love duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Siegfried is sometimes thought of as the "scherzo" of the Ring Cycle; the score is highly lyrical and colorful, with a much greater sense of joy than the surrounding operas of the cycle.
The mythological basis for the entire Ring Cycle is Norse mythology, but the names have been changed to their German equivalents. Wagner did take some liberties - combining a couple of figures here, completely eliminating others there. For more info on the myth behind the Ring Cycle, see Mythological origins of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.