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Götterdämmerung is the final part of the tetralogy that is the Ring cycle. For its composer, Richard Wagner, it was, as we saw in the Introduction, the starting point from which the rest of the cycle grew by necessity. The title of the opera, Götterdämmerung, translates rather uneasily, to 'Downfall of the Gods', or 'Twilight of the Gods.'
It is the longest of the four operas, comprising a Prologue followed by three Acts. An important new character is introduced to us in this opera – Hagen. He is an arch-villain, the son of Alberich, whose rape of a mortal woman was mentioned by Wotan in Act Two of Die Walküre, but not elaborated on. Hagen is the product of that union, and as dark-hearted and hateful a character as Alberich himself. Hagen and Siegfried are therefore about the same age.
The action continues in the Prologue from where Siegfried, the previous opera in the cycle, left off. Act One is laid in a great castle by the Rhine and at Brünnhilde's rock, Act Two outside the castle and Act Three in a nearby forest.
The Prologue opens to two chords that we heard in Act Three of Siegfried, when Brünnhilde opens her eyes having been released from her sleep spell by Siegfried's kiss. Whereas in Siegfried they were bright and joyful, now they are darker and laden with foreboding. By moving each chord by just a semitone – but harmonically to a remote distance – Wagner is showing us that Light has become Darkness, Love has become Hate, Life has become Death. The stage likewise is dark and misty; it is night. We see the three Norns weaving the rope of fate, but in a lacklustre fashion – the Norns are daughters of Erda, the Earth goddess, though not by Wotan, unlike the Valkyries.
Each weaves a part of the rope and then throws it to the next. They tell how once the golden rope of fate was anchored safely to the great world ash tree, until Wotan came and cut a branch from the tree to make his spear, since when it has withered and died. Now they must tie the rope to whatever is to hand, including around their own bodies. After Siegfried shattered his spear, Wotan commanded the heroes of Valhalla to gather all the withered remains of the tree, and its trunk, and to pile them around the foundations of the fortress. One of the Norns has tried the rope around a jagged rock, on which it snags. Pulling the rope to free it, the rope breaks, signalling the end of their eternal knowledge. In terror, they tie themselves to the rope and disappear down into the Earth to rejoin their mother, Erda. This Norn scene, as it is known, is sometimes omitted from performance, in an attempt to shorten the overall length of the opera by some 15 or 20 minutes.
After an orchestral interlude, morning dawns – Siegfried and Brünnhilde enter, Siegfried in armour, Brünnhilde leading her horse, Grane. Siegfried must go off to perform more heroic deeds. Before he sets out, he takes the Ring from his finger and gives it to Brünnhilde, who in exchange lends him her horse. Siegfried leaves and Brünnhilde is left watching him descend into the river valley, while she is still protected within the circle of fire surrounding the rocky place. The curtain is lowered again and we hear another orchestral interlude, this time the famous one known as Siegfried's Rhine Journey, linking the Prologue to the scene of Act One.
Near the end of the interlude, the curtain rises on the hall of the Gibichung castle, by the bank of the River Rhine. Gunther and Gutrune2 are on a throne at one end of a table, Hagen at the other. They are discussing how to increase the power and standing of the Gibichung. Hagen notes that neither Gunther nor Gutrune have married, and says that he knows of two people, Brünnhilde and Siegfried, who would make ideal spouses for the brother and sister. However, he points out that Siegfried and Brünnhilde are promised to each other, and that Brünnhilde is protected by a circle of fire that Gunther would not be able to penetrate. Hagen suggests that it could be achieved by trickery involving a potion they have in their possession, to make Siegfried forget Brünnhilde and fall in love with Gutrune. Further, he could be tricked into bringing Brünnhilde to them, thereby avoiding the problem of the circle of fire.
Siegfried's horn is heard in the distance and Hagen goes to meet him at the riverbank – Siegfried has acquired a boat from somewhere. He says he is looking for Gunther, so Hagen invites him to the hall – his greeting is accompanied in the music by the Curse motif. Having identified which of the two men is Gunther, Siegfried asks that his horse be stabled. Hagen leads the horse away, at the same time signalling, unseen by Siegfried, to Gutrune to fetch a drink for Siegfried – the drink of course to contain the secret potion. Gunther follows courtly custom to a renowned warrior, and offers himself as kinsman. Siegfried in reply says he has no possessions other than his sword on which to swear his allegiance, and does so. Hagen casually observes that he heard a rumour that Siegfried now possesses the Nibelung treasure, but Siegfried says he attributes no value to it. Careful questioning yields Hagen the knowledge that Siegfried has the Tarnhelm with him, that Brünnhilde has the Ring and that the remainder in still in the cave where the dragon once guarded it.
Gutrune re-enters the hall with the enchanted drinking horn, which Siegfried drinks. He is struck immediately by Gutrune's beauty and falls in love with her. He watches her leave then turns suddenly to Gunther and asks if he has a wife. Gunther says his heart is set on one whom he can never win. Siegfried says that with his assistance nothing is impossible. Gunther then goes on to describe how she is high up on a rock, surrounded by impenetrable fire and her name is Brünnhilde. As these facts are mentioned, Siegfried appears to be struggling with his memory, but it is obvious that he has forgotten Brünnhilde. Siegfried promises to bring her, using the Tarnhelm to disguise himself as Gunther. In return, Gunther promises his sister Gutrune to Siegfried; they swear a blood-oath on it, which Hagen significantly does not join. Siegfried makes ready to leave immediately, taking Gunther with him, leaving Hagen in charge of guarding the hall. Hagen contemplates that he will soon be near to the Ring, which, as Alberich's son, he regards as his inheritance.
During an orchestral interlude, the scene changes to a cave near the rock where Brünnhilde waits. She is sat gazing at, and kissing, the Ring that Siegfried placed upon her finger. Suddenly, one of her Valkyrie sisters, Waltraute, rides up. Brünnhilde is surprised that her sister has defied Wotan's ban, and wonders for a moment whether her father has relented after all. Waltraute tells her how things have changed in Valhalla – the remaining Valkyries no longer collect dead heroes. Wotan has been away wandering and has now returned with the fragments of his broken spear. The wood from the ash tree is piled around the fortress and Wotan has summoned the Council of the gods, who now sit silently waiting for something to happen. Wotan has sent out two ravens as scouts. Waltraute has overheard Wotan murmuring to himself that if the Ring were to be returned to the Rhine Maidens, perhaps the Curse would be ended and the world set free. This is why Waltraute has come, to ask Brünnhilde to give up the Ring. Angrily she refuses to give up Siegfried's love token, no matter what the outcome, and sends her sister away.
Suddenly, the flames increase and Siegfried's horn is heard. In joy, she rushes to the ring of flame just as Siegfried jumps through it, but he is wearing the Tarnhelm and appears to her as Gunther. Brünnhilde is aghast that someone other than Siegfried could have breached the protective ring. He tells her that he is Gunther, that he has come to subdue her and to carry her off as his bride, by force if necessary. Brünnhilde now believes that Wotan's cruel punishment is to torment her endlessly. She points the finger on which she wears the ring at him, in the belief or expectation that Siegfried's oath will shield her, but Gunther/Siegfried steps forward and in a struggle, wrenches it from her finger – Brünnhilde nearly faints. He pushes her back into the cave, where they must spend the night, but calls upon his sword Notung to lay between them, thereby keeping faith with Gunther, his blood brother.
The slow, dark mood of the Prelude sets the tempo for the start of the second Act. The scene is the shoreline in front of the Gibichung Hall. It is night. In the background, we can see three altar stones. Hagen is asleep, sitting propped up against one of the wooden supports of the hall. By the moonlight, we see Alberich crouched in front of him. Although he is asleep, Hagen swears an oath to Alberich that he will scheme and hatch a plot to kill Siegfried and recover the Ring, exacting Alberich's final revenge on Wotan and the other gods.
It is dawn and Siegfried appears suddenly on the shoreline. He tells Hagen that Gunther and Brünnhilde are approaching by boat. At Siegfried's request, Hagen summons Gutrune to join them. Siegfried describes how his mission was accomplished, completing his part of the bargain with Gunther, and that Gutrune will therefore be Siegfried's wife. She is concerned about the night they spent together in the cave, but Siegfried reassures her that his sword ensured her honour. Before getting into the boat with Brünnhilde, Gunther and Siegfried changed places, and Siegfried made his way back to the hall separately. Gutrune tells Hagen to summon the Gibich vassals to prepare for a double wedding.
Hagen climbs to a high rock and by blowing his horn, summons the vassals to come quickly, telling them that there is danger and that they should bring all their weapons with them, ready for a fight. They quickly arrive, but see no immediate cause for battle. Hagen tells them that Gunther is to be married, there is to be a wedding feast and that animal sacrifices must be made to the gods, especially to Fricka, the goddess of marriage and its vows. Hagen points to the boat now arriving with Gunther and Brünnhilde on board, telling the vassals that if ever Brünnhilde is wronged, she is to be avenged. They all welcome the couple.
Once again, a pivotal moment in the whole story has been reached. Gunther leads Brünnhilde through the crowd towards the entrance to the hall, from which Siegfried emerges with Gutrune. Gunther greets Siegfried. On hearing his name, Brünnhilde, who until now has kept her eyes on the ground, looks up and sees Siegfried. Still under the influence of the potion, Siegfried fails to recognise her and she is very confused when she learns of his betrothal to Gutrune. Suddenly she sees the ring on Siegfried's finger, when it was supposedly taken from her by Gunther, and bursts into a rage. Gunther says he did not give the ring to Siegfried; Siegfried says he did not get it from a woman, but as part of the hoard he gained when he killed the dragon. Hagen seals Siegfried's fate by saying that he must have got it by trickery, and that trickery must be avenged. Brünnhilde is now that most dangerous of creatures, a woman betrayed in love. She announces that she is married to Siegfried and that they were lovers when he claims his sword lay between them.
Gunther, Gutrune and all the vassals demand that Siegfried swear a solemn oath that Brünnhilde's accusation is false. Hagen holds out his spear. Siegfried lays his hand on the point of the spear and swears an oath that if he lied, the spear shall kill him. Furious, Brünnhilde grasps the spear point and vows that the spear shall be the downfall of Siegfried, who now has added perjury to his treachery. Seemingly unaware of the gravity of the situation, Siegfried advises Gunther to have Brünnhilde rest a while. He leads Gutrune into the hall and calls for everybody to join in the celebrations. Gunther, Hagen and Brünnhilde remain outside.
Brünnhilde bemoans her fate – 'Who will offer me a sword with which to sever my bonds?' Hagen of course offers to avenge her wrong by killing Siegfried. 'You kill Siegfried?' she scorns. She reveals that she protected Siegfried by a magic envelope that weapons cannot pierce, covering all but his back, which he would never turn to an enemy. Turning to Gunther who has been dazed by the unfolding events, Hagen persuades him that only Siegfried's death can avenge the shame and wrong done to him and his sister, Gutrune. The three agree, each for their own reasons, that it must happen. Hagen tells Gunther secretly that he will arrange an 'accident' at the hunt to take place the next day. The wedding guests emerge from the hall and head towards the sacrificial altars up the hill, joined, at Hagen's persuasion, by Gunter and Brünnhilde.
So we come to the final act of the final opera in this great cycle of Wagnerian music-dramas entitled Der Ring des Nibelungen – over 13 hours of music behind us, just one and-a-quarter hours to go.
The curtain rises to show a steep-sided valley, through which the Rhine flows. We are down at the water's edge, nearby where Siegfried is out with the hunting party. Three Rhine maidens are swimming in the water, lamenting their loss of the Rhine gold. Siegfried's horn is heard twice before he appears, alone, on a cliff above the river. He has lost the quarry he is hunting and asks the Rhine maidens if they have taken it. They ask if he would be willing to give them the Ring that he is wearing in exchange. At first he refuses, but then climbs down to the water's edge, takes off the ring and holds it towards them. The Rhine maidens warn him that the ring is cursed and that he too will die unless it is returned to them for safekeeping at the bottom of the Rhine, where the water will wash away the curse. He replies that he would only give it up for love, not in response to threats. The Rhine maidens swim away, sad at Siegfried's stubbornness.
Hagen, Gunther and the vassals appear on the cliff and climb down to join Siegfried. As preparations are made for a meal, they pool their collective kills and ask Siegfried what he has caught. 'Nothing', he replies, 'I must beg some of yours.' While they drink, Hagen tells Siegfried that he has heard rumours that he, Siegfried, can understand birdsong. Siegfried tells them the tale of his upbringing by Mime; the forging of the sword; how he killed the dragon and accidentally tasted the dragon's blood. Hagen adds the juice of a herb to Siegfried's drink, which he says, will enable him to regain his memory. Siegfried then goes on to tell the group how he rescued Brünnhilde. Realising what this means, Gunther jumps up in horror, and as he does so, two ravens3 fly up and circle over Siegfried before flying off towards the river. Siegfried jumps up, turning his back to Hagen. 'Can you understand their cry?' asks Hagen – 'To me they cry revenge!', and as he speaks, drives his spear deep into Siegfried's back. Siegfried attempts to bring his shield crashing down on Hagen's head, but falls backwards to the ground, landing on the shield. 'Perjury has been avenged', says Hagen and walks away. Astonished at Hagen's action, Gunther and the vassals gather round Siegfried who, in his final declamation in the Ring, dies recalling the moment when he awoke Brünnhilde from her sleep. Gunther signals to the vassals to lift Siegfried's body and to carry it up the hill.
The orchestral interlude that covers the scene change is sometimes played as a concert piece extract, when it is known as Siegfried's Funeral Music. As the body is carried away, the stage becomes slowly obscured by mist. When it clears it is night and we are in Gunther's hall. Gutrune is waiting for Siegfried's return. She looks into Brünnhilde's room to find her gone. Hagen's voice is heard from outside, rousing everyone to welcome the homecoming of the hero Siegfried! He cruelly informs Gutrune of Siegfried's death. Distraught, she at first accuses Gunther of his murder, but he distances himself from the act, says that it was all Hagen's doing. 'So be it', says Hagen, 'It was my spear he swore on, my spear that killed him. I demand the ring.' Gunther denies him, saying that the ring is Gutrune's inheritance. Hagen draws his sword and despite the attempts of the vassals to intervene, kills Gunther. 'Now give me the ring', commands Hagen, and grabs Siegfried's hand, which raises itself menacingly from Siegfried's side. There is a moment where everybody on stage freezes, before Brünnhilde slowly steps forward.
Brünnhilde now takes charge and the remainder of the opera is hers and hers alone4. She now understands completely and demands her vengeance as Siegfried's rightful wife, silencing Gutrune's protestations. She orders that a huge funeral pyre be built by the shoreline and that Grane, first hers then Siegfried's horse, be brought to her – she and Grane will join Siegfried. As the men build the pyre, the women cover the body and decorate the covering with plants and flowers. By Siegfried's body, she acknowledges his heroic nobility and his great sense of honour. Looking upwards, she asks Wotan if he is now happy that he has sacrificed Siegfried to the Curse. She tells him that she is sending two ravens to him with the news.
Brünnhilde orders that Siegfried's body be placed upon the immense funeral pyre and as it is lifted, she takes the ring from Siegfried's finger. She announces that she will end the Curse forever by returning the Ring to its rightful keepers, the Rhine maidens. Placing the ring on her own finger, Brünnhilde picks up a flaming torch and points it to the distant heights. She instructs two ravens to fly to Wotan with details of what they have seen and en route, to pass by the rock on which she lay asleep, to collect Loge, for Valhalla will burn.
She hurls the torch onto the funeral pyre, which burns rapidly. As she does so, the two ravens fly up and head towards the heights. She quickly jumps onto her horse and both leap into the flames, which immediately flare up to fill almost the whole stage, apart from the extreme front. Eventually, the flames subside, leaving only black smoke. Now the river rises and overflows its banks, flooding the whole area, enabling the three Rhine maidens to approach the funeral pyre. Hagen panics – 'Keep away from the Ring', he shouts and rushes into the water. Two of the Rhine maidens wrap their arms around his neck and drag him down into depths of the river, while the third holds the Ring aloft triumphantly. Now Wagner gives full rein to one of the most beautiful motifs in the entire Ring Cycle – the Redemption motif. We have heard it before but only briefly5, and never as prominently as now.
On stage, the water recedes. In the background, the smoke begins to glow red and we gradually see the gods assembled in Valhalla, waiting. The fortress catches light and is soon ablaze. As the gods disappear from view, the curtain falls and the music draws to a quiet, but magnificent close, with the glorious Redemption motif dominating.