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Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle (Part 5: ‘Siegfried’)BY: Steve Cohen 05.24.2009
Wagner’s Siegfried is a dumb, muscular bully– a hard fellow to like. But 19th-Century Americans had no such problem: Wagner deliberately created an aggressive modern man who defies all the rules of the past, just like the Americans who were boldly opening the West by pushing aside everything that stood in their way.
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Niebelungs). Through May 9, 2009 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York. (212) 362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org.
Siegfried: Wagner’s All-American boySTEVE COHEN
Fifth in a series of articles about Wagner’s Ring cycle.
No doubt I’ve offended some Ring devotees who insist that Siegfried isn’t supposed to be fun. This is serious drama, no question about it. But Shakespeare and, apparently, Wagner knew how to use humor for contrast. Wagner even utilized the show-business trick of putting animals on stage to enliven things: In this opera we see a bear, a dragon and– figuratively– a bird.
The music abounds in contrast, too. The prelude is dark and brooding; then the first scene comes skipping along with rhythmic insistence. The scheming dwarf Mime, brother of Alberich (who stole the gold from the Rhine Maidens in Das Rheingold), belittles and scolds Siegfried, the youngster whom he has raised. In response, the handsome hero insults the ugly dwarf, more or less in the spirit of Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as Ralph and Alice Kramden on “The Honeymooners.”
Like the Kramdens in ‘The Honeymooners’
The middle scene of the first act is a tense confrontation between Mime and a mysterious Wanderer who, obviously to everyone in the audience, is Wotan. They challenge each other with three riddles apiece. Puccini used this dramatic form in Turandot half a century later, but Wagner’s music is much darker. Their face-off supplies narrative: Wotan warns Mime that he won’t succeed in his plan to use Siegfried to kill Fafner the dragon and steal the gold.
The well-balanced arc of the first act ends with Mime and Siegfried alone again in a cave where the boy repairs his father’s sword and demonstrates its power by splitting the anvil as the curtain falls.
Siegfried is a hard fellow to like. Some viewers find him just a dumb, muscular hunk. (His parents were brother and sister, so how bright can we expect him to be?) But Siegfried is no humble, aw-shucks Van Johnson. He’s a bully who is mean to his care-giver (at one point he grabs Mime’s throat). He’s insolent to an elderly stranger. Yet the music drama– indeed, the entire Ring– suffers if we cannot find endearing qualities in this guy.
This wasn’t a problem in 1876, when the Ring made its debut. America celebrated its centennial that year. The telephone was invented. The first transcontinental railroad had been completed only seven years earlier. American Indians were being displaced and killed. Europeans, including Wagner, were aware of the lure of American optimism and expansionism.
Wagner responded by writing the part of an aggressive modern man who defies all the rules of the past. This All-American boy roams the wilderness, slays a dragon, discovers treasure, bonds with the birds of the forest and explores his country. Then he climbs to the top of a rocky mountain, walks through fire and awakens the ideal woman.
“In rude forcefulness and freedom from restrictive conventions,” the musicologist Henry Krehbiel wrote, Siegfried was “representative of the American people… so full of that vital energy that made us a nation.” And if we see Siegfried in this sympathetic light, we’re more likely to feel real tragedy when he is murdered in Gotterdammerung.
Radical Wagner vs. traditional Wagner
I find it fascinating that, in an opera about overthrowing the old order, Wagner stuck to a very orderly form. Each act of Siegfried consists of three scenes, and almost all of them are played “in two,” as theater-folks say, with just two characters addressing each other. In Act Two, Siegfried slays the dragon, takes the golden ring, tastes blood and gains the power of understanding nature. Specifically, he is able to understand the words sung by a forest bird, which tells him where to find the gold treasure and where to find Brünnhilde.
In the Met’s Otto Schenk production, Siegfried bounds around the stage with a youthful fervor that’s quite likeable. Christian Franz, in his Met debut, filled that aspect of the part. His voice is best in its mid-range and in tender moments but isn’t especially brilliant.
Echoes of Alzheimer’s
In Act Three the Wanderer (i.e., Wotan) summons his one-time lover, Erda, who gave birth to his nine Valkyrie daughters, to ask what the future holds. Wotan was attracted to the Earth-goddess because she was all-wise, but now her vision is cloudy. She tells Wotan to seek information, instead, from her three Norn daughters. “My wisdom once had a conqueror’s force,” she says. “Now I want to go back to sleep.”
This dimming of Erda’s mental acuity should bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has lost, or is losing, a loved one to Alzheimer’s— a process that’s hardest to bear when the victim once was highly intelligent.
Then the adolescent Siegfried meets his grandfather, Wotan. The kid shatters Wotan’s spear, which contains the laws of the gods. It’s as if an incoming American president tore up the U.S. Constitution.
James Morris, who sang Wotan with resonance and dignity, smiled as he walked off the stage for his character’s last time. Although Wotan has been humiliated, he’s pleased that his offspring is going to rule the world and inaugurate a new type of civilization. So he thinks. This smile is an instance where a director or actor adds an interpretative detail not specified in Wagner’s text– but neither does it violate the composer’s instruction.
The meeting between Siegfried and Brünnhilde is touching and human – literally. This is the first time they’ve met, but she knows full well that he’s the child of Sieglinde that she swore to protect. At this moment Brünnhilde has mixed feelings. She’s happy to get Siegfried as a lover but regrets the loss of her godly powers— which Wotan stripped from her because she disobeyed him— and she’s upset not only about that loss but also about the end of freedom and independence that occurs when we immerse ourselves in a new relationship.
The music disappoints
But here the music lets us down. The other three operas in the Ring end with gorgeous melody: magisterial in Rheingold, elegiac in Walkure and overwhelming in Gotterdammerung. Not so in Siegfried. Wagner here wrote a beautiful orchestral ascending scale with divided high strings for the moment when Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde. Then Wagner stretched the love music out too long, and he added a peroration that consists mainly of upwardly leaping bombast.
Franz was adequate as Siegfried, while Irène Theorin shone brightly as a charismatic Brünnhilde, alternating hope with fear.
An audience diversion
Have you ever contemplated how much age difference exists between Brünnhilde and Siegfried? He’s probably in his teens and she must have been older than that before Siegfried was born, when she was the chief Valkyrie. By now she’s in her 40s. A man sitting behind us at the Met remarked to his companion that Brünnhilde probably didn’t age during her years of slumber. But Wotan deprived Brünnhilde of her immortality, so she’d age just like a human. This romance between an older woman and a younger man is another instance of Wagner striking a blow against 19th-Century social conventions.
Such audience speculation is one of many diversions with which we Ring enthusiasts amuse ourselves during the cycle’s 15 hours and six intermissions.
Siegfried ends amid feelings of happiness and hope for the future. Soon everything will go wrong. ◆
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