Saturday, May 23, 2009


Richard Wagner's Siegfried

Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 19th of May 2013 at 3.03 - 8.20 pm
Sunday 27th of May 2012 at 3.03 - 8.20 pm
Sunday 24th of May 2009 at 3 - 8.45 pm


WAGNER: Siegfried, an opera in three acts
The third music drama of "The Ring of the Nibelung" cycle traces the first adventures of the hero Siegfried and culminates with his discovery of love
Siegfried...................... Jay Hunter Morris
Mime............................ Gerhard Siegel
Wanderer..................... Mark Delavan
Alberich....................... Eric Owens
Fafner.......................... Hans-Peter König
Woodbird.................... Lisette Oropesa
Erda............................. Meredith Arwady
Brünnhilde................... Deborah Voigt
Metropolitan Opera Orch/Fabio LuisiMetropolitan Opera Orch/Fabio Luisi WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen, stage-festival play,
performed as a tetralogy of prologue and three operas
WAGNER: Siegfried, an opera in three acts
We meet the adolescent hero Siegfried and observe his quest for adventure and love; after slaying a dragon he acquires treasure (including the Ring), and he finds affection at the fiery rock where he awakens Brünnhilde.

At this moment I am listening to Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried (Karl Boehm's Ring from Bayreuth, 1967, Philips recording), with no worries about wobbles or weariness in his voice. Alan Blyth's review of it calls this tenor 'an untiring Siegfried' and 'a most poetic one'.

In John Culshaw's book Ring Resounding (1967), on p.227,  he tells of an objection raised by a listener to the famous Decca 'sonic stage' studio recording of Siegfried, conducted by Georg Solti: on stage Windgassen sounds tired, but he is always fresh on the records.
Solti replied simply that 'Wagner was mad', expecting a tenor to last the distance over four hours, even with long intervals. With studio recordings we can hear it as Wagner imagined it. Nevertheless, when I first started listening to the Bayreuth recordings (in 1953 on Australian Broadcasting Commission transmissions), I was struck by the superior sweetness and strength that Windgassen could maintain compared with the other feeble tenors they hired, and my school-friends Geldard and Grattan agreed with me. As for Birgit Nilsson who was a resplendent Brünnhilde in both sets of recordings, I remember the report on the New York performance where they needed a different Tristan for each of the three acts, opposite her Isolde.

An introduction, synopsis, and libretto are supplied above, but this is my version of the story.

Wagner, Siegfried (1876) (or The Lad that loved a Valkyrie, as W.S. Gilbert might have said)
Act 1

We left Brünnhilde sleeping on a rock, surrounded by fire which burns continually. While the Valkyrie has been cosily hibernating there, Sieglinde, the sister of the slain Siegmund, had given birth to their son Siegfried, in the forest, and had died in the process. Mime, the Nibelung dwarf we met in Rheingold, forging away in the underworld, is now dwelling above ground in his smithy, and he had taken on the task of raising the orphan boy. Fafner, the giant who had killed his brother Fasolt, is now ensconced in his Fort Worth cave, gloating over the glittering gold, and by means of the Tarnhelm, the magic headdress that Mime had made, Fafner has the form of a dragon, all the better to guard the treasure against those who would steal it. Alberich the Nibelung, the brother of Mime, was the original robber of the bank of the Rhine, run by a band of silly ninnies, or nixies, bathing beauties skilled in ersatz seduction but not in production or protection of gold.

The deep music we hear at the start speaks of brooding: Fafner the dragon on his nest of golden eggs; Mime the dwarf pondering how he might gain the golden ring and have power over his brother Alberich and everyone else in the world. Mime's present problem is how to control the unruly adolescent who wants a sword, and whenever he is given one he smashes it. Mime is thinking that the two pieces of Siegmund’s sword Notung that are now in his possession would do nicely for piercing the giant-dragon’s heart. The whole of Act 1 is concerned with forging this weapon.

Siegfried bounds in leading one of his playmates (as he will say in Act 2, when he blows his horn only wolves and bears come to investigate), and he mischievously terrifies Mime with his bear, before sending the animal back into the woods. Siegfried demands a sword (so he can have adventures smiting and slaying); as usual the latest model is rejected and smashed on the anvil.

Mime offers him some hot stew, and that too is cast aside; Siegfried says he does his own hunting and roasting out in the wild. Mime starts off on the ‘Where did I go wrong?’ routine, pleading that he had been a good parent, and sobbing.

Siegfried responds to this by saying he hates Mime, and the birds and beasts of the forest are dearer to him; he has seen them lovingly tending their offspring. He uses violence on Mime to force him to reveal who his real mother and father were. Mime tells him everything we already know, and Siegfried wants his father’s sword repaired. He is leaving home and asserting his independence.

Mime sits moping. The Valhalla theme sounds out, which suggests Wotan is around, and someone calling himself Wanderer emerges from the woods. Yes, he needs to get out of the house, to give his wife Fricka a break, perhaps, or maybe he is just allergic to nagging. He proposes a merry quiz with his own head as the stake. He answers Mime’s three questions with ease, on the inhabitants (or dominant beings) of the underworld (Nibelungs in the depths of the Earth), those on the surface (giants on the back of the world), and on cloudy heights the gods. Wotan insists that Mime goes through the same ordeal. First, the family that Wotan loves but treats badly? The Volsungs of course. What is the name of the sword that Siegfried will use against Fafner? Notung. Who will join its pieces together? Mime is stumped. He will lose his life.

Siegfried returns, and eventually decides to work the sword himself. This time, after a lot of ‘Hoho! Hohei!’, when he tests the sword it is the anvil that breaks.

Act 2

Young Siegfried, the unloved adolescent with an unfettered attitude, pumped up with testosterone and adrenalin and with no trace of fear in his constitution, now has a sword to play with. His father Siegmund’s peerless weapon, Notung, has been restored to its pristine form, and having smashed an anvil it is ready to take on weighty dragons, wily dwarfs, and even the spear of Wotan, which originally broke it.

Act 2, Scene 1
Alberich the Nibelung has come out of his hole and is muttering to himself in front of a cave. Suddenly a glimmering glow gleams in the gloom of the gloaming (that is an English example of how Wagner’s alliterative poetry works in German); a stormy wind announces the Wanderer Wotan, and the moon shines forth on him (he should be mounted on his horse). An angry confrontation ensues: What are you doing here? Wanderer (also known as Light Alberich) says he has only come to watch Black Alberich keeping his watch, not to do anything. (Chéreau dresses them alike in his Bayreuth production.) The Nibelung knows that the god is powerless because of the covenant he made with the giants, written in runes on his spear (Daaa di da di dam dam dam dam dam, down the scale, is the contract and spear motif). Alberich is all set to rule the world, but Wotan knows that Mime will be bringing Siegfried to wrest the ring from the dragon.

Wotan calls out to Fafner the ‘worm’ to wake up. Who is disturbing my sleep, he growls (through a loudspeaker). They both warn him about the brave stripling who is coming to challenge him. Alberich asks Fafner to give him the Ring, so that Siegfried will have no reason to attack the guardian of the treasure. The dragon declines, and reclines in slumber again. Wotan rides off laughing at Alberich’s failure but warning him of doom.

Act 2, Scene 2
Daylight comes, and Mime brings Siegfried to the dragon’s lair, the cave of treasures. This is where Siegfried might learn fear, Mime says, and describes the monster to him (In the Patrice Chéreau version the dragon is wheeled around on a cart by stagehands; nothing to be afraid of.) Mime tells him to wait till the dragon comes out to drink at the spring, then he retires to the spring himself, murmuring his hope that Fafner and Siegfried will slay each other.

Here we arrive at a truly beautiful part of the opera. Siegfried lies under a linden-tree (that is, a lime-tree, but it does not bear limes). He thinks about his hate for Mime, and wonders what his real father and mother were like; certainly not like the ugly gnome who has parented him up to this point. Do all human mothers die when they give birth to a son? How he would love to see his mother. She probably had brightly shining doe's eyes, but even more beautiful.

The birds sing (flutes, clarinets, oboes, in the orchestra); one in particular seems to be talking to him. (Chéreau has it imprisoned in a small box cage so we can see it; the poor little thing darts about in its prison all the time, not singing happy songs at all.) He tells the bird that the dwarf had said that we can learn the language of birds. He cuts a reed and tries to answer the bird in flute sounds (cor anglais!), without success. So he blows a lusty forest tune on his silver horn, hoping to attract a good companion.

This time he attracts not the usual wolf or bear but a dragon. They have a merry conversation. What big teeth you have, Grandpa. All the better to &c. They fight. Notung pierces the beast’s heart. (Chéreau has the giant Fafner crawl out of the dying reptile.) Fafner wants to know who has killed him and who put him up to it. Siegfried has no idea what to say, but from Fafner’s death aria he learns about the giants who once ruled the world and now they will all be dead and gone. But Siegfried is warned that the instigater will now kill him in turn, if he is not careful. The youth finally gives his name and wants this fount of knowledge to tell him about his own origins, but Fafner expires pronouncing the name Siegfried.

Siegfried happens to taste the dragon’s blood, and finds that he can understand bird-talk, and the chirpy soprano tells him he has won the jackpot; he should claim the Nibelung hoard and take the useful tarnhelm (a magic cap) and the powerful ring. He goes into the cave.

The two Nibelung dwarf brothers, namely Mime and Alberich, quarrel over who will gain the gold. Siegfried comes out with the loot and Mime asks him if he has learnt fear yet. Nope, says the dope. Mime offers him a poison potion [both from the same Latin word, meaning 'drink'], but dragon’s blood also enables Siegfried to discern the real meaning of a deceiver’s words; and so he lops off Mime’s head. He sits down again and bemoans his orphanhood and expresses once again his longing for a mate. The bird tells him about Brünnhilde on the fiery rock, available only to a fearless hero. That’s me to a T, says he, just my cup of tea; and led by the bird he lopes off.

Act 3

The story so far: the young orphan Siegfried, grandson of the god Wotan, and son of the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, is ignorant of his lineage and he also knows no fear, so he has no trouble confronting and slaying the giant-dragon Fafner and seizing the Ring of power. He also kills his caregiver, the Nibelung dwarf Mime, who tries to poison him to get the Ring. However, he refrains from snuffing out the bird who comes and sings frequent refrains, about a desirable woman on a fiery rock. Now you would expect Siegfried to be more interested in food than sex, after all his exertion with the sword; but Wagner does not provide a restaurant in the wild place beyond the forest. Now read on (but Wagner keeps the recapitulations going, and every quarter of an hour one character tells another personage what has been happening in the recent and distant past).

Act 3, Scene 1
At the start of Act 3, Wotan is still seeking to learn what the future holds for his world; so he summons up the Earth-goddess, Erda, the fount of knowledge and wisdom. She is very sleepy, and apparently she does not recognize him as the one who fathered the Valkyries through her; and it seems to me that she can only remember giving birth to Brünnhilde.

We have to remind ourselves that Wagner wrote the libretto of the whole Ring cycle backwards, so when he came to The Valkyrie, he possibly decided he needed nine of them to do a decent ride of the Valkyries (not that they do it on stage anymore, not even with lightweight boys on hobby-horses). But you are making me digress, and you should have realized that this hypothesis can be refuted by referring to Götterdämmerung (written before Siegfried), where Brünnhilde is sitting on her rock wondering why Siegfried has not come home for his dinner, and her sister Waltraute visits her and reports that the Valkyries don’t get around much any more.

The conversation between Wotan and Erda runs thus:
Wake up, you all-knowing witch [wise female].
Who is disrupting my slumber? [just like the dragon, earlier]
The Wanderer, wanting to pick your brains.
Go and talk to the Norns, they are awake, winding their cord of fate. [her 3 daughters]
The Norns cannot tell me whether the wheel of fate can be stopped.
Well, I bore a brave and wise daughter to Wotan; go and ask her.
No, Brünnhilde was disobedient and is now dead to the world, until a man rouses her.
In that case, let me go back to sleep and seal up my knowledge.
No, Mother, not till you tell me how Wotan can be freed of the care you put in his heart.
You are not what you call yourself! Why are you disturbing my sleep?
You are not what you think you are! Wotan’s will is the end of the gods. Go to sleep.

With regard to the music, the first theme we hear is the upsurging motif (Da-di-da-di-da-di-da) that portrays the Rhine River at the beginning of The Rhinegold; and it also refers to Erda, who sometimes rises up out of the earth, as she will here. The next motif represents the downfall of the gods; it runs downwards, and (please note carefully) it is the opposite of the previous one, which perhaps also describes the rise of the gods to Valhalla, their celestial home. Another plunging theme is the Spear and the oaths and covenants associated with Wotan’s weapon; it has thirteen notes, which descend the scale, plodding in march time. Its counterpart, I suggest, is the motif that arises when Wotan finally tells Erda that a new world is coming, to be created by Brünnhilde and Siegfried. This theme will ring out at the end, as the two lovers embrace.

Act 3, Scene 2
Siegfried is on his way to Brünnhilde’s fiery rock. His informant (a little bird told him) has flown off, and now he encounters an elderly gentlemen, who asks him where he is going, and quizzes him about his history. This Wanderer is Wotan, who already knows all the answers to his questions, and Siegfried does too, and so do we.

Right then: the woodbird talked to him, and he understood because he tasted the blood of the dragon (Fafner the giant), and it was Mime the ugly dwarf who goaded him to do it, to teach him fear, and he himself forged the broken pieces of the sword; and if the old man does not stop asking all these mocking questions he will get a taste of the same medicine. And where did you get that hat, and what happened to your eye? Probably you lost it when you barred the way to some other stranger, so get out of my space or you might lose the other one.

This should have been a happy reunion (“My lad, I’m your grand-dad”), but it turns into a family quarrel (“Show respect to your elders”). Wotan is wrathful and Siegfried has lost patience; he suddenly realizes thet he is facing his father’s old foe; revenge at last!

At the end of The Valkyrie, Wotan had declared: “Whoever fears the point of my spear, never step through this fire”. Here was one who was not afraid of him. Siegfried smashes Wotan’s spear with Siegmund’s restored sword Notung. Last time (in The Valkyrie, end of Act 2) it was the other way round: the spear shattered the sword, somehow. My guess is that it is because Siegfried is wearing the Ring, and this makes him more powerful than Wotan.

The old wanderer disappears, the young adventurer heads for the circle of fire “to find the bride”. With a Hoho and a Hahei (or two), and singing lustily (“Lustig! Lustig!”), and blowing his horn, he exclaims: “Jetzt lock’ ich ein liebes Gesell” (Now I will attract a dear companion). This harks back to when he was in the forest, and the only creatures he could attract were wolves and bears, but when he started talking to birds he blew on his horn in the hope that “ein lieber Gesell” would be attracted by it. There Wagner used a masculine noun; here Gesell is neuter, perhaps because Siegfried is not supposed to know what a woman is like. But he knows that the object of his quest is a bride named Brünnhilde, who might teach him fear.

Act 3, final scene
We have seen Siegfried pass through the blaze (he would go through fire and water to reach the bride a little bird has told him about, and he will secretly marry her); he has stripped her of her helmet and breastplate (though her dress is still on her). With trepidation and closed eyes he has pressed his lips to hers, wondering whether this might prove to be for him the kiss of death or for her the kiss of life.

I used to listen to a ten-inch long-play recording of this love-scene, sung by Kirsten Flagstad and Set Svanholm, so it will last about half an hour.

Brünnhilde slowly sits up. “Heil dir, Sonne!” (Hail to thee, sun!). Long was my sleep; now I am awake: who is the hero who awakens me? Siegfried tells her excitedly that he is the one who has come to rouse her. He sings Heil to his mother who bore him, and the maid echoes this. She always knew he would be the one who won her, and the word “love” comes up often in their enthusiastic deliberations.

Brünnhilde looks tenderly on Grane her horse as he grazes, who had also been woken by Siegfried (with a kiss?!); for his part the lad is desirous of more grazing on her mouth. Seeing all her armour lying around she suddenly feels vulnerable. Siegfried becomes ever more fervent, declaring that the fire that protected her has now moved into his bosom. He speaks of ardent love, she feels “Angst”.

She calms down and sings (to a tune that Wagner used again in his Siegfried Idyll) about her eternal nature, and that she has always been above that sort of thing; so she tenderly asks Siegfried not to spoil everything by overwhelming her. Fair enough, after all, she knew his mother, her half-sister, and Siegfried should be saying “Aunty Hilda, shall we have a nice cup of tea?”.

They both lack practise (they are virgins, remember, he having never seen a woman before in his life, and she being his maiden aunt). However, passion floods over them, and they get high on it; their jubilant duet ends in an embrace, with cries of “leuchtende Liebe” (bright shining love) and “lachender Tod” (laughing death) (it’s the Liebes-Tod of Tristan and Isolde again!). She has the choice of ending on top C or an octave below; he has been singing his head off for hours, so he stays an octave or two below her. In Chérau's version, he will actually be above her, that is, on top of her.

Radio New Zealand Concert network
WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen, stage-festival play,
performed as a tetralogy of prologue and three operas
WAGNER: Siegfried, an opera in three acts
We meet the adolescent hero Siegfried and observe his quest for adventure and love; after slaying a dragon he acquires treasure (including the Ring), and he finds affection at the fiery rock where he awakens Brünnhilde.
Sunday 27th of May 2012 at 3.03 - 8.20 pm
Siegfried........................ Jay Hunter Morris
Mime............................ Gerhard Siegel
The Wanderer............... Bryn Terfel
Alberich........................ Eric Owens
Fafner........................... Hans-Peter König
Woodbird..................... Erin Morley
Erda.............................. Patricia Bardon
Brünnhilde..................... Deborah Voigt

Sunday 24th of May 2009 at 3 - 8.45 pmBrünnhilde..................... Iréne Theorin
Erda.............................. Wendy White
Siegfried........................ Christian Franz
Mime............................ Robert Brubaker
Wanderer...................... James Morris
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/James Levine

Sunday 21st of September 2008 at 3 - 7 pm
Siegfried, an opera in three acts
Siegfried................................. Christian Franz
Mime...................................... Michael Roider
The Wanderer (Wotan)........... Alan Titus
Alberich.................................. Hartmut Welker
Fafner..................................... Walter Fink
Erda....................................... Cornelia Kallisch
Brünnhilde.............................. Susan Bullock
Woodbird............................... Gabi Gál
Hungarian Radio SO/Adám Fischer
(recorded in the Bartók National Concert Hall,
Palace of Arts, Budapest by Hungarian Radio)

I give previews not reviews, but with regard to this series: I like the orchestra and what the conductor Adám Fischer is doing with them; but there is some wobbling and rasping in the voices, making me want to stand right back (one or two rooms away). At this moment I am listening to Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson as Siegfried and Brünnhilde (Solti's Ring), with no worries.

Here are valuable links to the Metropera archive that do not work any more:
UNDERGROUND The meaning of it all

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