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An Operaphobe Reviews Wagner’s “Siegfried”

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  • Katie Culpepper
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Tonight, the drama gets serious in the third opera of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” Siegmund and Sieglinde are lost to us, but baby boy is all grown-up and primed to earn his place as the only man brave enough to capture Brunnhilde’s heart – and the challenging vocal score.

Known as “the most perfect human being,” Siegfried has a lot to live up to, but Wagner felt he lived up to the hype. In fact, Wagner predicted "Siegfried" would be his best and most popular work. (Close - but I think Die Walkure wins. But who am I to say?)

Of course, there was a lot to get through anyone could find out. While Siegfried might have been the “most perfect being,” he was also difficult. So difficult, in fact that Wagner took a 12-year break before completing the opera.

Personally, I’m not so in love with the dude myself, but smug (however lovely and courageous its wrapper may be) has never done it for me. I suppose that Brunnhilde at least seems happy for a while, though.

And, well, I guess I shouldn't forget that Siegfried is also a teenager. Thank Wotan that we aren't all judged on our merits at that age. Really, what more can we expect? Especially when we add the fact that sassy Siegfried been raised by a hateful dwarf in the forest. On reflection, I suppose I can’t really fault him too much.

Anyway, after my note yesterday, it’s also a little easier to accept the love story here. At least Siegfried is falling for his lovely half-aunt instead of twin sister.

Regardless of what I think of the character, though, I have to admit, the score iof Siegfried is particularly demanding, and it’s exciting to watch the performance. In range and dramatic scope, it’s incredible. It’s also fun to hear – and to see - a brighter tone in Wagner’s oeuvre.

But enough about the character, what about the story? Read on to for a rough outline, and tell us what you think after you tune in at 8 p.m. tonight!

We skip a bit of a chapter in the and begin “Siegfried” in a cave in the forest, where the dwarf Mime – our dictator’s weaker brother from “Das Rheingold” – is making a sword.

Though not as sharp as his brother, Mime is a slimy little son-of-a-gun, too. It turns out that Mime is plotting to steal the ring of power for himself. To achieve his dastardly goal, Mime has raised Siegfried – his human foster child – to kill the dragon, Fafner, who guards the ring and other golden treasure.

But Mime isn’t much of a dad. He hates Siegfried, but recognizes his strength and continues making swords – which Siegfried continually breaks – in hopes that his efforts will pay off one day.

Siegfried is particularly happy, either. When he arrives on the scene, he promptly smashes the sword Mime’s newly forged sword, and begins raging at the dwarf’s incompetency. About this time, a light bulb goes off for our human hero. There is no way he could be this dwarf’s son – they look positively nothing alike – and he demands Mime tell him who his ‘rents are.

Mime lectures Siegfried a bit about ingratitude after the tantrum, then fills Siegfried (and us) in on the missing bits: he found Sieglinde in the woods and took her in. But she died giving birth and he ended up with Siegfried and the broken pieces of his father’s sword.

Apparently not taking his tantrum lecture very seriously, the little peach Siegfried orders Mime to repair the sword and rushes back out to wherever he came from.

The ever-unlucky Mime is understandably disappointed, of course. But before he has too much time to moan about it, a stranger comes into his house. Of course, we recognize head honcho Wotan in human dsguise, but Mime’s none the wiser.

As lovely Norse/German guests always, I’m sure, do, Wotan challenges scardey cat Mime to a riddle competition – the loser forfeits his head. Being all-powerful and virtually all-knowing, Wotan quickly answers Mimes three q’s correctly, and even poor old Mime starts out okay on Wotan’s first two questions … but gives up, scared to death, when Wotan asks who will repair Siegmund’s sword. Busted, things don’t look good for Mime, but Wotan simply gets onto him for not knowing what’s going on around him and says that Mime’s entitled to keep his head on his neck for now, but that “he who knows no fear” will rid him of it later.

Scene completed, Siegfried (the brat, as far as I’m concerned – but I’m guessing that’s what a lack of fear will do to you) returns demanding the sword, but Mime begs off. He can’t repair it.

Along that time – looking for an angle – Mime tries to explain the concept of fear to Siegfried, without much success. Realizing that Siegfried will eventually be the one who removes his head, Mime decides to take matters into his own hands by offering to teach Siegfried – to his delight – what fear is. Conveniently, that involves taking him to visit the dragon’s cave.

Of course, since he’s not scared of anything, Siegfried takes to the idea directly. Siegfried decides to re-forge dear old dad’s sword himself for his fear-inspiring mission. In the meantime, Mime concocts a sleeping potion to give to a victorious Siegfried so he can nab the ring for himself.

To close Act I, Siegfried wraps up forging the sword and – to show it off, cuts the anvil he used to make it in half. Then, inexplicably, he runs off into the forest again.

(There must have been something really good out there.)

In Act II, we find out that on the same night, our dwarfian dicatator friend Alberich, from “Das Rheingold” has been hiding outside the entrance to the dragon’s cave all along, still obsessed with getting the ring back. About that time, Wotan pops in and warns Alberich that Mime is coming. Intent that no one else – particularly his brother – should get the ring, Alberich wakes the dragon up to warn him Siegfried is coming to kill him.

The dragon is unimpressed and, presumably, still sleepy.

In the morning, Mime and Siegfried show up. Our hero’s a bit on the dreamy side, though. As he looks around the woods and thinks about his real parents, Siegfried attempts to imitate a bird song on his reed pipe, but ends up blowing his horn instead. (An understandable mistake, I’m sure.)

That sounds convinces the dragon there’s actually someone worth waking up for, and a fight ensues.

Of course, our handsome hero is victorious, and as the dragon dies, he warns Siegfried of the ring’s destructive power. Shortly thereafter, Siegfried accidently burns his hands with the dragon’s blood and touches a drop of it to his lips. Apparently, dragon’s blood is some pretty powerful stuff, because it allows Siegfried to understand the bird’s song that he heard before he found the dragon. 

It turns out, the bird’s been attempting to tell him about the gold in the cave – and the two dwarves outside quarreling. A touch frightened of dude who just killed the dragon, though, they skitter off when Siegfried returns with the ring and magic helmet. The handy little birdie also tells Siegfried not to trust Mime. So, when the dwarf offers later offers him the sleeping potion, he simply offs him. 

Another treat from the lovely little bird? He tells Siegfried about a beautiful woman named Brunnhilde who sleeps on a mountain surround by fire. Who could resist that, right? Inspired, Siegfried head out to find her.

At the beginning of Act III, Wotan is already out ahead of his lovely little grandson on the high mountain’s pass. There, he calls up Brunnhilde’s baby-mama, earth goddess Erda, (Seriously, did this guy have any kids with his wife?) to get her to tell him what exactly is going to happen to the gods.

Apparently, the news isn’t good, because she kind of evades the question. Still, considering, Wotan doesn’t take the news (which he figures out) too badly. In fact, he starts to enjoy the idea of Brunnhilde and Siegfried running the show.  He hopes the two of them will do something to save the world in the future.

But first, Siegfried has to prove he fears nothing to reach Brunnhilde – and that means not fearing the king of the gods, too. When Siegfried reaches the pass, Wotan questions him and gets a tarty response. Siegfried decides to pass Wotan up and get back to what he was doing, but when Wotan steps in the way to block the path, Siegfried breaks Wotan’s spear and keeps moving. 

A rather indulgent grandfather, I think, Wotan simply gathers up the pieces and disappears.

Of course, after all of that, the ring of fire is nothing. Siegfried passes through to Brunnhilde’s rock and, sheltered fella, thinks she’s a man at first. Of course, you can’t blame him too much. It turns out he’s never seen a woman before. Things are, ahem, revealed, however when he starts taking her armor off, though. And, for the first time in his life, Siegfried is afraid. Of course, the only thing to do when you’re frightened is kiss someone, so kissing Siegfried does. Then, our lovely warrior princess awakes and Siegfried is enraptured. 

And it turns out he isn’t too bad himself, either. Though she knows earthly love means mortality, Brunnhilde is won over. She renounces the world of the gods for Siegfried. The two of them are so happy, they sing about it. They end the opera hailing love and laughing at death leaving us for to find out what happens in “Gotterdammerung” tomorrow.


“Great Performances at the Met: Wagner’s Ring Cycle – Siegfried,” Thursday, Sept. 13, at 8 p.m.