Der Ring des Nibelungen
Second Day: Siegfried
Libretto by the composer
Premiere: Bayreuth Festival House, 1876
The third opera in Wagner’s four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, Siegfried is the coming-of-age story of the ultimate hero and his role in the struggle for supreme power, which is embodied by the magic ring introduced in Das Rheingold. Siegfried is an unusual hero by any standard: he is portrayed as an impetuous teenager who knows no fear, and Wagner made little attempt to make him likable in a conventional sense. While characters from earlier parts of the saga return in Siegfried, the emphasis is clearly on the human title hero and, eventually, on Brünnhilde in her mortal incarnation. Wotan, leader of the gods, appears as well, but in the distinctly human shape of the Wanderer. The opera’s earthly ambience is also represented in its focus on nature: there are references to animals and their behavior in the libretto, and the sublimely lyrical depiction of the forest landscape in Act II is among Wagner’s most striking achievements.
Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was the complex, controversial creator of music- drama masterpieces that stand at the center of today’s operatic repertory. Born in Leipzig, Germany, he was an artistic revolutionary who reimagined every supposition about music and theater. Wagner wrote his own librettos and insisted that words and music were equal in his works. This approach led to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art," combining music, poetry, architecture, painting, and other disciplines, a notion that has had an impact on creative fields far beyond traditional operatic territory.
Siegfried is set in mythological times, when gods and other creatures contend for dominion over the earth while humans are emerging as a new power. No location is specified in the libretto, but the Teutonic mythology Wagner based his story on and the significance of the Rhine River in the epic suggest a Germanic setting.
Much of the drama of Siegfried is expressed in the orchestra: Wagner’s system of leitmotifs (characteristic themes associated with a character, object, or emotion) that was begun in Das Rheingold and elaborated in Die Walküre is taken to a new level here, as events and ideas overlap and evolve. The orchestra creates one of the most delicate and enchanting soundscapes in opera, the evocative Forest Murmurs in Act II. The preponderance of male voices throughout most of the work, including three bass roles, creates a dark and murky atmosphere appropriate to the setting of forest caves throughout the first half of the work. This gloom is scattered by the bright soprano voice of the Forest Bird, which emerges from the Forest Murmurs. Her melody recalls the music of the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold and evokes a sense of unsullied nature. The vocal demands of this opera are extreme even by Wagner’s monumental standards. The title role is especially notorious, both for its sheer length and for encompassing an astonishing range of dynamics—from the heroic to the reflective to the tender and romantic. Wagner makes ingenious (if spare, in terms of time) use of female voices in Siegfried: the extremes are covered by the deep-voiced Erda, the Earth Mother, in Act III, and the graceful lyricism of the Forest Bird. But the complete feminine principle remains unexplored until the final half hour of the opera, when Siegfried awakes the sleeping Brünnhilde. The two then share one of the most exciting love duets in opera, a carefully constructed surge of sound and emotion that leads to a tremendous musical and dramatic climax.
Siegfried at the Met
The Met gave the U.S. premiere of Siegfried in 1887, conducted by Anton Seidl (who had worked with Wagner at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876). The cast
included tenor Max Alvary, soprano Lilli Lehmann (another Bayreuth veteran), mezzo-soprano Marianne Brandt, and bass Emil Fischer—a quartet that did much to popularize Wagner’s music in America. A new production in 1896 featured Jean de Reszke as Siegfried and his brother Edouard as the Wanderer. Two more productions followed in 1904 (with Gustav Mahler conducting five performances in 1908) and 1913. Famous Brünnhildes during those early decades included Lilian Nordica, Milka Ternina, Johanna Gadski, and Olive Fremstad. Lauritz Melchior was the dominating interpreter of the title role from 1926 until 1948, while the legendary Kirstin Flagstad sang 19 performances of Brünnhilde from 1937 to 1941, and an additional one after her return to the Met in 1951. Friedrich Schorr, a great German bass who, along with many other singers, fled Europe in the time of the Third Reich, gave 46 performances as the Wanderer in this era. Fritz Stiedry conducted a new production in 1948 featuring Set Svanholm and Helen Traubel. Herbert von Karajan’s staging, based on his Salzburg production, premiered in 1972, with Eric Leinsdorf conducting Jess Thomas, Birgit Nilsson, and Thomas Stewart. James Levine led the premiere of Otto Schenk’s 1988 production with Wolfgang Neumann, Hildegard Behrens, and Donald McIntyre and went on to conduct every subsequent performance of Siegfried at the Met through 2009. James Morris appeared as the Wanderer 16 times from 1989 through 2009. Robert Lepage’s new production, opening on October 27, 2011 and conducted by Fabio Luisi, is part of the Met’s first new staging of the Ring cycle in more than 20 years.