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Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle - Siegfried

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Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle
Introduction | Das Rheingold | Die Walküre
Siegfried | Götterdämmerung

Siegfried is the third of the four operas by Richard Wagner in the cycle entitled Der Ring des Nibelungen. The plot follows on from the events of its predecessor, Die Walküre.

The Tale Continues...

Several years have now passed and Sieglinde has died giving birth to Siegfried, the child of her incestuous relationship with her twin brother Siegmund. Siegfried, now a young adult, has been brought up in Nibelheim by Mime1, the brother of the dwarf Alberich, whom we met in the first opera, Das Rheingold. Mime's objective in raising Siegfried is for him to kill Fafner who, in the form of a dragon, has been guarding the Ring and the other treasure in a cavern deep in the forest. Mime plans in turn to kill Siegfried, and thus enable him to gain the treasure for himself.

Just as Brünnhilde is the heroine of the Ring cycle, so Siegfried is the hero. Wagner casts him in the heroic mould so beloved of mid-19th-Century German art poetry. In the music, he is always identified by his horn motif.

The opera takes place in three Acts. Act One is laid in Mime's cavern; Act Two in the forest, just outside Fafner's lair; and Act Three in the wild, rocky place in which Die Walküre concluded.

Act One

After a short Prelude, the scene opens in Mime's smithy, where he is attempting yet again to forge a sword that will not break as soon as Siegfried wields it. He has already tried several times to forge the broken pieces of Siegmund's sword, Notung, but to no avail. Each new sword he makes, Siegfried breaks like a toy and despises Mime more. Siegfried now enters, seizes the new sword that Mime hands him, and just like those before, breaks it immediately. He again expresses his loathing of Mime, who asks him to remember who brought him up, providing food and drink, clothes, toys and a horn. Siegfried retorts that Mime taught him everything except how to tolerate him. 'Why do I have no mother?' demands Siegfried. 'But I am your father and mother', says Mime. 'Liar', replies Siegfried, 'offspring look like their parents. The animals in the forest have taught me that!'

Siegfried now demands to be told how he came to be with Mime. The dwarf explains but Siegfried wants proof. Mime shows him the broken fragments of the sword left for him by his mother. Siegfried leaves Mime, demanding that the sword be repaired that same day so he can depart forever. Mime tries once more to forge the pieces, but the metal is too hard for him to work.

A Wanderer enters – Wotan in disguise – and asks for hospitality. Mime is suspicious of the stranger and wants to be rid of him. The Wanderer tells him that he offers counsel to others, that Mime could learn something of importance, and offers his own head in a wager. Mime says he will ask three questions and the Wanderer agrees to answer them.

Mime first asks: 'Which race dwells in the Earth's depths?'
'The Nibelungs', replies the Wanderer.

Mime next asks: 'Which race dwells on the Earth's face?'
'The Giants', answers The Wanderer.

Finally, Mime asks: 'Which race lives in the cloudy heights?'
The Wanderer of course replies: 'The gods – in Valhalla.'

The Wanderer tells Mime that he has wasted his questions stupidly and missed the opportunity to learn what he needs to know, and that he will now ask three questions of Mime – on the same forfeit conditions. Fearful, Mime has no choice but to agree.

The Wanderer first asks: 'Which is the race that Wotan oppressed, yet whose life is dearest to him?'
Mime correctly answers: 'The Volsungs – Wotan's love-children.'

The Wanderer's second question is: 'Which sword must Siegfried wield to kill Fafner?'
Mime is able to reply: 'Notung.'

The Wanderer's final question is: 'Who will repair the sword Notung?'
Now Mime is beaten – he does not know. The Wanderer tells him: 'Only one who has never felt fear can forge Notung anew'. The Wanderer leaves, telling him that he will not take his head; that will be done by the one who has never learnt fear.

Siegfried returns to find Mime hiding behind the anvil. Mime tells him what he has been told about whom must forge the broken sword, but Siegfried cannot understand since he has no concept of fear. Siegfried asks Mime to teach him what fear is; Mime tells him about the dragon (Fafner) in his lair. When Mime admits that he can never forge the sword, Siegfried decides to do the job for himself. Despite his lack of experience, he works away at it, heating and hammering, shaping and sharpening until it is finished, all the while singing a song that wonderfully mirrors his actions. To test the sword he raises it, strikes a mighty blow and splits the anvil in two.

Act Two

It is night, and outside Fafner's cavern lair, Alberich, the ugly dwarf from Das Rheingold, is keeping a watch. He is joined by the Wanderer, whom Alberich recognises immediately as Wotan. He tells Alberich that he has come merely to watch, not to act. Alberich confirms Wotan's fear – whoever possesses the Ring is doomed to die, and when he, Alberich, recovers it, he will use its power to storm Valhalla and become ruler of the world. Wotan says that Alberich's plan does not bother him, but Alberich points out that Wotan's confidence is placed entirely upon a blood descendant. Wotan tells Alberich that Mime, Alberich's brother, is bringing a young boy with a plan to kill Fafner (the giant, now in the form of a dragon) and gain the treasure. Wotan assures him that he has no ambition for the Ring himself – it is Alberich versus Mime, brother versus brother. Wotan predicts that Siegfried will gain the Ring, and suggests that if Fafner is told of the plans to kill him, he might give up the Ring voluntarily; Wotan awakens the dragon, and they both warn Fafner of Siegfried's approach. Alberich offers the exchange, Fafner's life for the Ring, but Fafner just wants to sleep. The Wanderer (Wotan) leaves Alberich to his watch.

Mime and Siegfried enter, Mime telling him that this is where he will learn fear. In the cavern lives a fearsome dragon, with enormous jaws and tail, whose saliva is corrosive to flesh and bone. Siegfried takes note of these facts and asks whether the dragon has a heart situated in the same place as in man and in the animals. 'Then I'll thrust my sword into it', says Siegfried, 'that's not much of a lesson.' Mime replies that he has not seen the dragon yet and must wait until after sun up, when it will come out to drink at the nearby stream. Mime goes off to watch at a safe distance, musing that the ideal outcome would be for them to kill each other.

While waiting, Siegfried wonders what his father, and more particularly his mother, looked like, and why she had to die in childbirth. There then follows an orchestral passage known as the Forest Murmurs, during which we hear, represented on a solo flute, a bird singing. Siegfried tries to communicate with the bird by imitating its sound on his reed pipe, but cannot produce the same sounds. In frustration, he picks up his horn and plays a long, loud refrain that arouses Fafner from his sleep. 'At last', says Siegfried, 'now teach me fear'. 'I came for water, now I have food', Fafner responds. Siegfried almost immediately springs forward and thrusts his sword, up to the hilt, into Fafner's heart. Before dying to the sound of the Curse motif, Fafner warns Siegfried that Mime is plotting his death. In the process of withdrawing his sword from Fafner's body, Siegfried gets the dragon's blood on his fingers, which burns. Instinctively, he puts his fingers to his mouth and finds that he can now understand bird-song. The bird tells him of the treasure in the cave; that the Tarnhelm will give him wondrous powers but that the Ring will make him ruler of the world.

As Siegfried goes into the cave, Alberich and Mime arrive and start to quarrel over the treasure. As Siegfried emerges carrying the Tarnhelm and the Ring, the brothers hide. The bird tells Siegfried that he must now listen carefully, as in addition to what he is saying in his words, he will be able to hear what Mime is thinking in his heart. Mime tries to lure Siegfried into taking a poisoned drink, but of course, Siegfried hears his true thinking. He raises his sword, and with a final gesture of loathing kills Mime, once again to the accompaniment of the Curse motif. Alberich is delighted.

The bird tells Siegfried that there is a woman, a waiting bride, Brünnhilde, asleep on a rock, surrounded by a circle of fire; she can only be awakened by one who is fearless. Siegfried realises that he is the one, and asks the bird to lead him to the place. As the bird sets off, with Siegfried following close behind, the curtain falls.

Act Three

The curtain rises on the final act of Siegfried to reveal a wild, rocky place. The Wanderer summons Erda, the Earth goddess from her long sleep. He now sees the downfall of the gods as inevitable, and is seeking knowledge – is it possible to hold back the wheel of destiny? A sleepy Erda, who does not know at this stage that The Wanderer is Wotan, suggests that he consult the Norns, the three sisters who weave the rope of destiny. Wotan insists that the Norns merely weave, and cannot alter or deflect the course of events, and therefore cannot help him. Erda then suggests that he consult Brünnhilde, her child with Wotan, whom she has still not recognised. He tells her that he has banished Brünnhilde and put her to sleep awaiting a heroic mortal to wake her with a kiss. He realises that Erda's wisdom has all but drained away, and she for her part realises that he is Wotan.

Another pivotal moment in the overall action of the Ring cycle has now occurred: Wotan has stopped trying to prevent the downfall of the gods, and is now actively seeking it; he bequeaths the world to the mortals. Siegfried's innocence of envy and human love make him immune to the Ring's curse, and may prove to be a better destiny for the world. He dismisses Erda to eternal sleep.

Siegfried now appears, having been led by the songbird. The Wanderer asks him how he came to be here and what his purpose is. Siegfried answers him but soon becomes impatient and demands whether the old man knows where there is a sleeping woman on a rock surrounded by fire. If he does, then tell him, otherwise get out of his way. Wotan, irritated by Siegfried's insolence, bars the way with his spear. The glow of the fire farther up the mountain now becomes visible as darkness begins to fall. Wotan points out that his spear once broke the sword that Siegfried has re-forged. Knowing that this act was the cause of his father's death, Siegfried sees revenge close at hand, draws his sword and shatters Wotan's spear with a single blow. Wotan is now a spent force, and gathering the pieces of his shattered spear, he goes off.

The final scene of Siegfried is a long love duet between the hero and the heroine of the Ring cycle, Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Siegfried rushes to the summit of the mountain, sounds his horn and dashes into the flames. These now disappear and the scene changes slightly as we are clearly inside the ring of fire. There Brünnhilde lays in full armour, hidden by her helmet and shield, which leads Siegfried to believe that the figure before him is a man, a warrior. With his sword, he cuts off her helmet and breastplate to reveal, of course, that she is a woman. The hormones kick in and as he feels the beating of his heart, he wonders whether this is the 'fear' that he was supposed to learn about.

He kisses her and Brünnhilde wakes, a little hazy at first. 'How long have I been asleep?' she asks, 'and who is the hero who has woken me?' He tells her his name. Brünnhilde is now fully awake and is happy to see her horse Grane, grazing nearby. She sings of her love for Siegfried, but also notes with regret the passing of her role as Wotan's daughter, the honour shown her by heroes, her immortality and the pending loss of her virginity. He professes his unending love for her. Briefly, and to the music that Wagner will reuse in the well-known Siegfried Idyll2, she asks him to leave her again, but they quickly reassert their love and cling passionately to each other.

In her final dialogue with Siegfried, although she is laughing happily, Brünnhilde innocently prophesies the coming events of Götterdämmerung – the crumbling of Valhalla, the breaking of the Norns' rope of fate and the final demise of the gods.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde's final love duet is of great passion and as the curtain falls, just in time, the music rises to an appropriate climax.

1Mime is pronounced Meemer, like 'Lima', but with a 'M' at the beginning instead of a 'L'.2Written as a birthday present for his new wife, Cosima, and first performed on the stairway to their lodgings, on the morning of her birthday, Christmas Day, 1870.

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