Go inside this production of Siegfried with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
Mime, one of the mythical race of Nibelung dwarves, works at his forge to create a sword for his foster child, Siegfried. He knows that the new weapon will not satisfy the youth, whose powerful arm will shatter the blade at the first blow. Mime is desperate to achieve his goal – possession of the Ring and the Tarnhelm. This could be accomplished if Siegfried slays Fafner, who has assumed the shape of a dragon and now guards the stolen Nibelung treasures. Mime could then dispose of Siegfried and have the Ring’s power to himself. Siegfried appears, terrorizing Mime with a wild bear. Mime hands him the new sword, which Siegfried immediately destroys. Siegfried instinctively distrusts Mime, despite his apparent kindness. Mime’s reproaches provoke a quarrel during which the youth extracts from him the name of his mother and the circumstances of his birth. Mime shows Siegfried the broken pieces of Nothung, his father’s sword. Siegfried orders Mime to reforge it, for he is eager to strike out on his own. He rushes back into the forest. Wotan, disguised as the Wanderer, enters the hut seeking rest. Mime tries to keep him out, but he wagers his head against a moment’s shelter that he can answer any riddle. Mime is unable to outwit him. It is Mime’s turn to solve his guest’s riddles, and he easily guesses the first two answers: The Volsungs are the race Wotan most loves and most oppresses; and Nothung is the sword Fafner’s slayer must wield. Mime fails to answer the third riddle: “Who shall forge together the fragments of Nothung?” The Wanderer supplies the solution: “One who has never known fear.” The Wanderer departs, declaring that he forfeits to the unknown hero his prize – Mime’s head. Mime realizes he has erred by never teaching Siegfried fear. He is confident that Fafner will teach the youth this emotion, and when Siegfried returns, he proposes that they go immediately to the dragon’s lair. Siegfried insists upon first having his father’s sword but, since Mime is unable to forge it, Siegfried sets to work himself. Mime is torn by a dilemma: Siegfried must have the sword to kill Fafner; yet if he forges the weapon, he may also fulfill the Wanderer’s prophecy and claim Mime’s life. Having decided to drug Siegfried after the encounter with Fafner and kill him when he is unconscious, Mime brews the potion that will destroy Siegfried. Seizing his reforged weapon, Siegfried splits the anvil in half.
The edge of the forest
Near Fafner’s cave, Alberich keeps a vigil, waiting for his curse on the Ring’s possessor to claim its new victim and thus enable him to recover the Ring and the Tarnhelm. When the Wanderer appears, Alberich sees through the disguise and recognizes Wotan, king of the gods. Wotan tells Alberich he is simply an observer, not a participant. He informs Alberich that Mime is coming with Siegfried to destroy Fafner; afterwards, Alberich must contend with his brother Mime for control of the treasures, for Wotan does not covet them. At Wotan’s suggestion, Alberich warns the dragon of the approaching danger and urges him to return the Ring to its rightful owner in order to preserve his life and the remainder of his hoard. Fafner refuses. Wotan withdraws, and Alberich swears that he will have vengeance on the gods. As dawn breaks, Mime and Siegfried arrive. Mime warns Siegfried of the lethal venom that gushes from Fafner’s mouth, and of the power of the monster’s tail to encircle and crush all adversaries. Unperturbed, Siegfried merely verifies that his foe has a heart like any other beast. He drives Mime away, then stretches out beneath a tree. Thinking of what he has heard from Mime about his birth, Siegfried wonders what his parents were like. Fashioning a flute from a reed, he attempts to imitate a bird’s song. Failing, he sounds his hunting horn, arousing Fafner, whom he kills. As Siegfried withdraws his sword from Fafner’s body, blood spatters his fingers, which he impulsively draws to his lips. He can then understand the birds, and can also read Mime’s innermost thoughts. The forest bird urges him to enter Fafner’s cave to seize the Ring and the Tarnhelm. Siegfried disappears into the cave as Mime approaches to make certain that Fafner is dead. Alberich rushes forward barring his way, and the brothers quarrel over who shall possess the treasures. Both leave as Siegfried emerges from the cave. The forest bird warns him to beware of Mime. When Mime speaks to Siegfried, he is able to reply to Mime’s secret thoughts rather than his cajoling words. Realizing what Mime plans to do, Siegfried kills him. Alberich’s laughter rings out in the distance. Siegfried learns from the bird that Brünnhilde sleeps on a mountaintop, surrounded by a circle of fire penetrable only by one who has never known fear. He sets out to find her.
Scene 1. A desolate landscape
Wotan summons the earth-goddess Erda to consult her wisdom. When she cannot help him to forestall impending events, he resigns himself to whatever Siegfried and Brünnhilde bring to pass. Once Siegfried appears, the youth’s arrogant fearlessness first amuses, then antagonizes Wotan, who warns him against the sea of flames. When Siegfried disregards the warning, Wotan bars the path with his spear, but Siegfried’s sword shatters it. Sadly picking up the pieces, Wotan offers no further opposition.
Scene 2. The summit of the Valkyries’ rock
Siegfried emerges from the flames and comes upon the sleeping Brünnhilde. He initially mistakes her for a warrior, but as he removes her armor he realizes that she is a woman. When he kisses her lips, she awakens and is ecstatic upon learning the hero’s name. At first she recoils from his wooing and, prompted by memories of her former godhood, she contemplates human love with shame. Finally Siegfried arouses in her a passion to equal his own
Siegfried is often referred to as the “Scherzo” of the Ring – and it is true that it fulfills the definition of a comedy in that it has a happy ending: the boy does indeed get the girl. Brünnhilde has waited long enough for the fulfillment of her fiery dreams, and at the end Siegfried is in that blissful state of not yet knowing just what he has found! It’s not so funny from Wotan’s point of view. He has been the victim of a very blatant Freudian encounter with his rampant grandson who, unaware of this relationship, shatters his spear in order to get the old fool out of the way.
As it is the story of a child, it is also appropriate that Siegfried is a fairy tale. Its prelude delights in the rumblings and roarings of the dragon, the type of creature that children love to be scared by. And it glories in the apparatus of fairy tale – magic swords, dragons, talking birds, and a naïve child forging its way into the world.
Innocence, then, is the primary subject and characteristic of Siegfried. This gives it its naïve coloring – and you will find color aplenty in this production which is, I think, a relief between the more somber worlds of Die Walküre and Götterdämerung.
Innocence is, by contrast, surrounded on all sides by its opposite – the guilty residues of old complexities and corruptions. Protagonists from past intrigues lurk in the forest, awaiting developments and powerless to intervene, as the future lies in the hands of an innocent youth, far too preoccupied with the egotistical crises of adolescence to notice the dangers, and contemptuous of them when he does stumble over them. As the story progresses, the corpses of these players from the past litter the stage: Mime and Fafner the dragon fall victim to a child’s simplistic view of a universe explained to him in the workings of nature: “You’re bad, so I have to kill you!” And though he does not kill Wotan, the shattering of his spear leaves Wotan with nothing more to look forward to except death and the destruction of the gods.
Of course, within this child’s coloring book world we are still within the framework of our “visible theater” with all the tricks – and there are quite a few of these, as is proper for a fairy tale – created out in the open for you to see. But this time the visual language very much reflects the child’s viewpoint. We see the world very much as Siegfried himself might imagine it. And in so far as period matters at all – it doesn’t really – we seem to have crept forward into that postwar era that to many of us seems to define innocence.
Riddles are a fundamental part of fairy tales – a good way of incorporating wisdom into a game – but in Siegfried this game is played out by two representatives of the corrupt old order: Mime and Wotan. Mime famously omits to ask Wotan the question to which he desperately needs the answer: “Who can re-forge the magic sword, Nothung?” But the answer, when he finally gets it, having forfeited his own head, is so gnomic that it probably would not have helped: “Only he who has not learnt fear can forge the sword.”
Needless to say, Mime’s desperate attempts to teach Siegfried fear are doomed to failure, but when Siegfried meets Brünnhilde his awesome first encounter with the opposite sex teaches him fear in no uncertain terms. Fear and love, it seems, are closely linked and the great charm and perceptive insight of the final scene is that these two mighty heroes, Brünnhilde and Siegfried, are as nervous and shy as old-fashioned pre-sexting teenagers.
Their crisis of adolescent discovery is of course deepened by their bizarre parenting, offering no role models for romantic bliss. Brünnhilde was brought up in a sort of girl’s military boarding school, by an ultra alpha male, Wotan, against whom she rebelled and who, as punishment, threatened her with abandonment to any passing male predator.
This was a threat of astonishing coldness, immediately followed by a parting of great emotional as well as literal fire. Plunged from a position of extreme privilege to one of extreme submission to fate, it is no wonder that she finds the prospect of a normal relationship very difficult. Siegfried of course likewise has been grotesquely parented by Mime, who tries to pass himself off as a mother and father rolled into one. The touching quality of this mammoth children’s opera’s final scene is of two wounded, vulnerable, and lonely personalities reaching towards each other with a combination of ecstasy and terror. It completes this “Scherzo” in a blaze of happiness, coloured by great psychological insight into the developmental lives of Wagner’s favorite children.
Director, David Pountney
There is nothing more ambitious for an opera company to undertake than a new Ring cycle. In terms of the vocal, orchestral, and visual requirements, Wagner’s tetralogy is the ultimate challenge. It calls on artists, musicians, and backstage personnel to contribute their last ounce of skill to do justice to the four operas, which stand among the greatest works of art ever produced.
When Sir Andrew Davis and I first spoke to director David Pountney about creating Lyric’s new Ring, we told him we wanted to reclaim this masterpiece for the theater. Over the years so much has been done to the Ring, to the point that we felt it had lost its true connection to its theatrical roots. David took that literally, and is setting each opera within the skeleton of an old theater. Within that structure, the worlds of each opera are quite different.
After getting off to a great start with the first two operas of the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, we’ve arrived at Siegfried, unquestionably the liveliest portion of the tetralogy and frequently referred to as the Ring’s “scherzo.” David and his brilliant designers have created a fantastical, whimsical, imaginative world that will be extraordinarily potent in its telling of the story.
Sir Andrew’s conducting of the major Wagner operas at Lyric has been one of the company’s greatest joys for nearly two decades. It will be hugely exciting for us to witness his return to the stupendously exhilarating music of Siegfried, and to hear our orchestra revel in such highlights as the stirring “Forging Song” of Act One, the “Forest Murmurs” of Act Two, and the luminous music that accompanies Brünnhilde’s awakening in Act Three.
Singing the title role for the first time – truly a Mount Everest for tenors – is Burkhard Fritz, in a very eagerly awaited Lyric debut. He comes to us after scoring repeated successes internationally not only in the heldentenor roles of Wagner and Strauss, but also as the romantic heroes of Weber, Berlioz, and Offenbach. Another remarkable tenor, singing the pivotal role of Mime, is another debuting artist, Burkhard’s compatriot Matthias Klink, who will bring exceptional musicality to a role that does not always receive it.
Joining us to continue their traversal of two of Wagner’s most magnificent characterizations are our Brünnhilde, Christine Goerke, and our Wanderer (Wotan), Eric Owens. In Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Eric exhibited a thrilling majesty in his portrayal, which he sang with all the beauty, power, and sensitivity for which he has become celebrated. After captivating our audiences as the heroic warrior-maiden in Die Walküre, Christine’s stupendous singing and passionate acting will show us all the warmth and womanliness of Brünnhilde as the character discovers love.
Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn – so extraordinary as the Rheingold Alberich – will be back with us to reveal more of that fiendishly vindictive character, and the rich-voiced American mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller will debut at Lyric as Erda, which has become her signature role. I’m delighted to welcome back to our stage two remarkably gifted alumni of the Ryan Opera Center, Diana Newman (Forest Bird) and Patrick Guetti (Fafner).
All of us at Lyric are excited that you’ve joined us as we continue our Ring journey with Siegfried. We hope it will prove as great an adventure for you as it is for us.
General Director, President & CEO
The Women’s Board Endowed Chair
Of the myriad musical marvels that flow from Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen cycle, one of the most significant takes place shortly after the midpoint of Siegfried, the third opera in the tetralogy.
It’s not a musical moment. Indeed, it’s anything but a moment. Between finishing work on Act Two of Siegfried in the summer of 1857 and starting Act Three, Wagner took a bit of a break – a 12-year break.
How long is 12 years? Consider these diverse historical examples: approximately the length of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s three-plus terms as president, or as long as Voyager 2’s Grand Tour of the outer planets between 1977 and 1989. It’s more than one-third of poor Mozart’s short life and the number of full seasons Michael Jordan was a member of the Chicago Bulls.
Wagner nearly stopped composing the opera shortly after Siegfried skewers the treacherous Mime and sits exhausted in the noonday sun under a linden tree. In a letter to Franz Liszt, Wagner wrote, “[Siegfried] will be better off there than anywhere else.” The composer eventually finished Act Two on August 9, 1857, and then departed the world of the Ring until 1869.
Why did Wagner stop work on a project that had dominated his creative life since 1848, the year he wrote the libretto for Siegfried’s Death (which later became Götterdämmerung)?
Certainly crushing financial troubles played a role, stemming from Wagner’s inability to stage the two previous Ring operas. Das Rheingold was not given its world premiere until 1869, Die Walküre not until 1870 (both were composed in the 1850s). And the composer, who often had his next operatic project well in view, was starting to fall under the spell of Tristan und Isolde. By 1859 the new opera was complete, although Tristan would not enjoy its debut performance until six years later in Munich. And there was more on Wagner’s plate: in 1861 he revised his earlier opera Tannhäuser for a new production in Paris, described by one opera historian as “one of the greatest operatic flops of all time.” When Wagner had the audacity to place the Venusberg ballet right after the overture, the French were outraged, including the august Jockey Club swells who booed vociferously throughout the entire opera. Tannhäuser closed after only three performances, and Wagner never returned to Paris.
Finally, there was that minor piece of business at decade’s end called Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner’s only comedy of his mature operas.
An amnesty from King Ludwig II served as a pardon for Wagner’s role in the 1849 Dresden Uprising, making the composer no longer persona non grata in Germany. Wagner set up shop in Munich, this time with a new wife, Cosima von Búlow, the daughter of Liszt and former wife of conductor Hans von Bülow (Wagner’s first wife, Minna, had died in 1866). Wagner’s affair with Cosima had been one of the worst-kept secrets in Europe, yet von Bülow still agreed to conduct the world premieres of Tristan in 1 in 1865 and Meistersinger in 1868.
When Wagner finally returned to Siegfried, he was simply a different composer. The groundbreaking harmonic and rhythmic structures of Tristan – one of the most influential compositions in the history of music – had carved a permanent place in Wagner’s creative imagination. Act Three of Siegfried is new, certainly in a musical sense.
“When listening to Siegfried Act Three we sometimes wonder if we are listening to Tristan instead,” wrote the late British musicologist Derrick Puffett:
It is almost as if we have been listening to two different operas, two different Siegfrieds composed before and after Tristan. After the pastoral fun and games of Acts One and Two, we are plunged back into the world of myth…the world of Rheingold and Walküre; and the musical expression of that world is the familiar stock of leitmotifs, incomparably intensified through their contact with Wagner’s new harmonic language.
Act Three of Siegfried, which Wagner completed in 1871 (the premiere took place as part of the first complete Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876), is not superior to the first two acts, just different. In their magnificently comprehensive text A History of Opera, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker wrote that “Wagner’s taste in harmonies and sonorities grew stranger and more complex in the 1860s and 1870s.”
Indeed, from Tristan on, much of Wagner’s music begins to display a plaintive and at times even a haunting quality, one that began with the five Wesendonck Lieder composed during late 1857 and early 1858. And listen to the moment when Brünnhilde recognizes her horse Grane in Act Three: for a few measures, with the horns playing so tenderly, the music seems to foreshadow Richard Strauss, as if Brünnhilde were channeling her inner Marschallin.
As for the plot, there are no new significant twists to the opera after Act Two, and the character of Siegfried doesn’t really change. Just as the teenage hero’s deeds drive the action of the first two acts with the forging of the sword Nothung and the slaying of the dragon Fafner, he will dominate the narrative in Act Three, culminating with the awakening and wooing of the onetime warrior-maiden Brünnhilde.
Wotan, one of the two or three most important characters in the entire Ring cycle, remains a supporting player. In the guise of the Wanderer, he is more of a commentator on the opera’s ebbs and flows rather than a controlling force – the former star athlete who now sits in the TV booth. Once Siegfried splinters his spear early in Act Three, Wotan’s presence in the Ring is over.
The “pre-Tristan” portion of Siegfried contains numerous treasures. The forging scene that closes Act One is music communicating an energy and verve that seldom appear in the Ring’s earlier operas. Lord of the Rings fans will note the similarity of Siegfried reconstructing his father’s broken weapon to what happened when the shards of Narsil were remade for Aragorn as the mighty sword Anduril, Flame of the West. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the literary trilogy, borrowed liberally from Wagner.
Act Two of Siegfried is one of Wagner’s most creative enterprises, a darkness to light musical odyssey. It begins with sounds of menace and foreboding from the drums and tubas, what the composer called “Fafner’s Repose.” The deep forest is not a place for beginners. Midway through the act, however, the mood shifts as the beautiful “Forest Murmurs” section – seemingly Wagner’s response to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – is quietly introduced by the higher strings and woodwinds.
Once Siegfried slays the slow-moving Fafner (who resembles an aging heavyweight fighter who hasn’t faced a legitimate challenge in years), the forest sounds as liberated as Berlin did the night the Wall fell. The Woodbird sings with great joy that Siegfried “will own the Nibelung hoard…and if he desires to find the Ring, it will make him ruler of the whole world.” And the Woodbird’s advice for Siegfried to beware of Mime sets up perhaps the most inventive musical sequence of the act: Mime’s words, which have been accompanied by a scherzo-like tempo reminiscent of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet, turn much slower, as if allowing Siegfried to ascertain their true meaning. Mime is toast.
The act concludes as the once-quiet “Forest Murmurs” burst with noontime energy. Instead of soft woodwinds, a triumphal trumpet and the full orchestra escort Siegfried out of the woodland and toward the “wondrous woman who sleeps on a high rock.”
After 12 years Wagner did not return to the Ring with subtlety or restraint. The start of Act Three finds the composer throwing open the doors and windows to Haus Ring (so to speak) and clearing out the dust and cobwebs with a new sense of mission. Erda’s music, so slow and mysterious in Das Rheingold, is urgently dramatic as Wotan seeks advice one final time from the “eternal woman.” Few acts in all Wagner begin with so much pace and power.
The late Wagner biographer Robert Gutman viewed the Wotan-Erda scene as a turning point, calling it the composer’s “emotional and sad farewell to the complete artwork; music drama now gives way to grand opera, the genre in which Götterdämmerung was originally conceived.”
And following the dramatic confrontation between Siegfried and Wotan and Siegfried’s monologue after he has conquered the magic fire, grand opera is what transpires with the Siegfried-Brünnhilde duet that closes the work. For the first time in the Ring, two characters actually sing to one another simultaneously. In the rapturous duet that closes Act One of Die Walküre, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried’s parents, had taken turns pledging their love but their voices never joined. Tristan und Isolde, with perhaps the most famous of all love duets, provided Wagner the foundation for combining voices.
As with the brother-sister romance of Walküre, the power and beauty of Wagner’s music overshadows the fact that Brünnhilde – as Anna Russell famously reminded us – is Siegfried’s aunt. It’s a romantic connection Game of Thrones aficionados might recall from the passionate scene between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen that ended the most recent season of the blockbuster cable series. Of course, Brünnhilde knows she is Siegfried’s aunt and doesn’t care. (Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons, doesn’t realize this inconvenient truth – at least not yet).
Perhaps the best-known music of Act Three is the lulling passage sung by Brünnhilde that forms the central theme of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.” As the onetime Valkyrie contemplates her new life as a mortal woman, the music turns more introspective and intimate, a welcome change of pace from the scene’s romantic tension.
For all his boyish charm and courage, Siegfried never really sees the big picture. He tells Brünnhilde, “My mind fails to grasp far-off things.” Siegfried can come across as limited or even, dare we say, ignorant. Götterdämmerung, the Ring’s final opera, will show this heroic lad is not the master of all situations (John Culshaw, who produced the first complete recording of the Ring cycle in 1958-65, said of him, “Wisdom is not, and never will be among his attributes”).
Whatever his faults, the confident and joyously happy Siegfried closes his eponymous opera wearing a beautiful, shining new musical mantle. Wagner’s 12 years away from the Ring truly paid major dividends.
Richard Rothschild of Oak Park has written about opera for more than 30 years, including during a 21-year stint at the Chicago Tribune.