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The Ring of the Nibelung at San Francisco Opera- Part 2

Snacks.

I bet you’re not completely surprised that I’m starting here. This is an important topic when thinking about attending the opera. I must admit I was sad when my old go-to for opera intermission fare, Citizen Cake, moved to Fillmore Street many moons ago. Do not despair, but do think about snacks.

A few of note:

  • Arlequin (good to-go food from sandwiches, cookies, and prepared salads).
  • Peets (scones, cookies, packaged crackers)
  • SF Opera catering by Patina (nuts and fruit, cookies, etc…)
  • Blue Bottle (for that pre-opera cup of joe at the original location plus a treat for the road)
  • Whole Foods (this is a bit more of a pre-opera planned expedition, but very well worth it if cookies and such are not your bag.)

When tackling almost 10 hours of opera in two shows and four intermissions respectively, you want to be prepared. Side note: peppermints or cough drops are kind of a must for the opera. You never know when you might get a throat tickle or feel parched. They saved me during my “Siegfried” experience.

Now that we’ve gotten the nibbles out of the way, the show must go on…

SINGING- The Ring of the Nibelung at San Francisco Opera- Part 2

 

[Things that happen in the interim of the story, between Operas III and IV]

  • 18 years have gone by since the end of Die Walküre and Brünnhilde‘s punishment.
  • Sieglinde has died giving birth to the son sired by her brother Siegmund. The lad’s name and the focus of the third opera is “Siegfried.”
  • Mime, Alberich’s brother has reared and raised Siegfried and possesses the shards of the all-powerful sword (Notung!). His aim in all of this is for Siegfried to unwittingly steal the One Ring and the Tarnhelm from the dragon Fafner for him.

 

 

Siegfried opera art

III. Siegfried

Mime and Siegfried live near the dragon Fafner. There, Mime does his metalwork. Siegfried has grown into a strong and fearless man. All of the swords Mime has created for him have shattered. Siegfried insists that Mime reforge the shards of the sword his mother left for him (Notung!) but Mime can’t figure out how to forge it. Siegfried sets off in the forest and during his absence, along comes a Wanderer (Wotan) who puts Mime on the spot. They play a game of wits, where the Wanderer tells Mime to ask him three questions. Not taking his opponent seriously Mime does not make the most of his questions as the Wanderer tells him he should have asked how to reforge the sword- he knows that is Mime’s burning question. The Wanderer then tells Mime before taking his leave that only a fearless man can reforge the sword, which frightens Mime. When Siegfried returns, Mime sees that to save his life, he must teach Siegfried fear. But it doesn’t work and fearless Siegfried reforges Notung! for himself. The daft Siegfried follows Mime’s urging to go with him and find Fafner to learn true fear. All the while Mime has an ace up his sleeve with a poisoned drink intended for Siegfried after he steals the golden treasures from the dragon.

Mime isn’t the only one after the golden booty, as Alberich is stationed nearby looking for his opportunity. The problem is Fafner has used the Tarnhelm to transform himself into a form that is invincible. Wotan also happens by to both warn Alberich of Mime’s plans and incite Fafner. Shortly after Wotan leaves, Siegfried and Mime show up with the intention of instilling fear. Quite the opposite happens as Siegfried listens to the birds and creates a pipe to mimic their call. Fafner emerges and Siegfried kills him. As Fafner is dying, he warns Siegfried of Mime’s scheme and his blood allows Siegfried to understand the birds. Alberich and Mime go to blows over the golden bounty and then hide as Siegfried comes out with the Tarnhelm and the Ring. A bird warns Siegfried not to trust Mime. Mime approaches and tries to give Siegfried a drink, but Siegfried now understands what Mime is actually saying apart from his words. Siegfried does not drink the poisoned beverage and instead kills Mime.  The bird then encourages Siegfried to break through the wall of fire and rescue his intended wife, Brünnhilde. They set out in pursuit.

Wotan visits Erda, aware of the impending doom of the gods’ future. He visits in hopes that this doom awaiting them can be averted. Her advice to him is to seek counsel with their daughter Brünnhilde. Wotan then tells her of the fate of their daughter because of her disobedience. Erda is stunned and refuses to share more of her oracle insight with Wotan. He then tells her he will leave the world to Siegfried after the gods are no more. On the way to rescue Brünnhilde, Siegfried stumbles upon Wotan unknowingly. Wotan begins plying him with questions about his sword. Siegfried becomes irritated and tells the old man off. Wotan then tells him he severed the sword in his hands which Siegfried then takes to mean that the old man killed his father. Wotan tries to block Siegfried from going farther and uses his spear to bar the way. Siegfried shatters the mighty spear of Wotan. For a god purported to be the all-father, our last view of Wotan is him gathering the shards of his spear. Siegfried, the noblest of men, the fearless one breaks through the wall of fire and awakens Brünnhilde. She wakes up aware she is now a mortal and must submit to this man. She gives in willingly.

[Items of Note:]

  • “Siegfried” was first performed in New York City at the Metropolitan Opera on November 9, 1887.
  • The first performance of “Siegfried” in San Francisco occurred on November 6, 1935.

IV. Göetterdämmerung

This final installment in the Ring Cycle opens with Erda’s three daughters, the Norns, weaving together the rope of fate. They are able to see that Valhalla will fall at any moment and as they perceive this the rope begins to fray. They desperately try to pull it tight which only snaps the rope and they go down to be with Erda. Siegfried and Brünnhilde awake at dawn after a night of connubial bliss. She urges him to pursue adventure for both of them and leave her behind. He swears his love to her and as a sign that he will return he gives her the One Ring.  (Now, excuse me for inserting myself into this bit, but keep in mind the curse and the intent behind the ring. I think there is a bit of magic in this juxtaposition as you’ll see later.)

(New characters alert: hold tight with this next storyline…)

Gunther, the leader of the Gibichungs and his sister Gutrune scheme how to win the Ring. Hagen, Gunther’s half-brother and the son of Alberich suggests Gunther should marry Brünnhilde. They begin conspiring how to make that happen and Hagen paints the picture of Brünnhilde locked in a ring of fire and that only the noblest of men can rescue her. Their plan includes giving Siegfried a love potion so he will fall in love with Gutrune and forget his wife Brünnhilde. They conspire to trick Siegfried in winning Brünnhilde’s hand for Gunther in exchange for Gutrune’s. Siegfried’s horn signals his arrival. They offer him a drink and he toasts Brünnhilde, his love, even as he drinks the love potion that will make him forget her. After coming up from his sip, he locks eyes on Gutrune and the Gibichung plan is in motion.

Meanwhile, Waltraute, one of the Valkyries, visits her sister Brünnhilde imploring her to return the Ring to the Rhinemaiden and then warning what will happen if the Ring is not surrendered. Brünnhilde refuses and her sister leaves distraught. Siegfried arrives wearing the Tarnhelm and disguised as Gunther. He takes the ring from Brünnhilde and claims her as his bride.

While Hagen is asleep, Alberich visits him, inciting his son to acquire the ring from Siegfried. Dawn breaks and a triumphant Siegfried returns letting them know he has won Brünnhilde for Gunther. Thus ensues a meeting of the couples before they are to be married: Gunther and Brünnhilde, Siegfried and Gutrune. Brünnhilde sees her ring on Siegfried’s hand and begins a tirade (worthy of fanfare) as she begins to plead her case that she is already married to Siegfried and trickery is afoot. Under the spell of the love potion, Siegfried has no recollection of his vows and as such denounces Brünnhilde. She is grief-struck and angry, believing Siegfried has betrayed her. In her desire for revenge, she ends up revealing Siegfried’s area of weakness to Hagen. Little does she know about the ulterior motives and scheme in play by the very men she has just delivered her husband.

Siegfried ventures out among the ruined and dirty banks of the Rhine (quite a poetic juxtaposition from its original state in Das Rheingold). The Rhinemaiden plead with him to return the Ring but he pays them no heed and so they depart. The hunting party, led by Gunther and Hagen arrive. Siegfried proceeds to tell them about his upbringing by Mime, the slaying of Fafner and takes a drink from Hagen infused with an anti-potion that rouses him from his drugged state. As he comes to, he talks of rescuing and falling in love with Brünnhilde. He remembers his wife and vows just before he is stabbed in the back by Hagen, on the principal of avenging Brünnhilde and the Gibichungs. Siegfried dies. As the hunting party returns to the Gibichung hall, Gutrune nervously awaits. In comes the party and with them a woeful Gunther and Hagen who explain to Gutrune that a boar killed Siegfried. Gutrune doesn’t buy that story and instead accuses Gunther of killing him and then Hagen pipes up, accepting responsibility for the deed. Gunther and Hagen go to blows for ownership of the Ring and Gunther is struck down. Siegfried’s arm shoots up from his dead body, the Ring glittering. Hagen shrinks back in fear. Brünnhilde arrives beholding her dead husband for the first time and orders a proper funeral pyre for the noblest man who has lived. She returns the Ring to the Rhinemaiden, understanding at last what must be done- that through her death and through the gold going back to the Rhine, Alberich’s curse can be broken. She walks into the flames and the world lights up on fire. Hagen is pulled to his death into the Rhine by the Rhinemaiden as the banks of the Rhine overflow.

 

FINI. C’EST TOUT. THE END.

 

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[Final Notes]:

You’ve stuck it out.

And the interesting thing about a Cycle is that at the end it can start up again. The dress rehearsal schedule allowed us to see Operas 3 and 4 before seeing 1 and 2 respectively. It enabled me to see the workings of a Cycle in opera at play.

I have to give a thank you to the wonderful San Francisco Opera for their helpful translations of the libretto. They helped me fill in the gaps of memory and make sure to stay on track with including the right and important details. I continue to be smitten with Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde all the way to the end. Her character really feels like it might be the one opera heroine with the depth, independent spirit and verve I admire most in opera. To sing the role, I am told by opera singer friends, it takes a very particular kind of singer. The soprano must be a dramatic soprano with the ability to carry depth into that high range. My dear friend Olga actually ended up having a bit of an identity crisis when her voice teacher told her that she wasn’t really a Mezzo-Soprano at all- that if she kept at it, she had the makings of a dramatic soprano, perfect for Wagner. I have seen this in action as her rich and full voice grows and heightens over time. The voice is a marvelous thing. Hagen for me held my attention. Andrea Silvestrelli played such a good villain in Hagen with such a beautifully deep voice. I could talk about so many of the singers in these operas- the cast truly was stellar. Just as I found myself smitten with the ballsiness of Brünnhilde, Siegfried got no love from me. I found him daft and completely devoid of common sense or wisdom, then again he was fathered by a brother and sister duo…

In “The Ring of the Nibelung”, Wagner has written a compelling drama to span the ages. I do not get into his politics but simply take the story at face value and find it an enchanting if weird ride at times. It is one that creates a lasting memory, worthy of any bucket list.

If you have had a chance to see the Ring Cycle of Wagner- the “Ring of the Nibelung,” please share your experience with this epic from favorite moments to characters.

Categories
Art Singing

The Ring of the Nibelung at San Francisco Opera- Part 1

SINGING- The Ring of the Nibelung at San Francisco Opera

Opera.

Before you roll your eyes or yawn, I want to ask you a few questions. Does a good drama make you cling to the edge of your seat in anticipation of what’s going to happen next? How about love stories- do you find yourself getting caught up emotionally in the outcome of what happens when two characters lock eyes for the first time? Not your thing? How about a good sword fight- there aren’t enough sword fights with the actual clash and clang of metal ricocheting on metal…

The opera is so much more than meets perception.

Let’s take another pass at this, shall we? Were you in line for the midnight showing of all three “Lord of the Rings” movies? Can you quote whole sections of the movie? Are you the rightful owner of the sword Arwen wielded holding back the Nazgul? Did you get married in a church that rather resembles the great Hall of Rohan?

Answers for this last section: a.) Yes- all three, but not in costume. There are limits. b.) It sounds like a noble endeavor. c.) A certain man we will call Beck does possess such a prize. d.) Yes, yes, a hundred times yes, though Theoden did not officiate.

the ring limited edition poster san francisco opera

For all you Lord of the Rings fans out there, let me present to you the original story of The One Ring. It comes from an opera by a German composer, Richard Wagner, entitled “The Ring of the Nibelung.” Several things of note here: Wagner is known for his use of leitmotif, which Merriam-Webster online defines as “an associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation especially in a Wagnerian music drama.” The Ring Cycle” as it is known consists of four operas, which rarely get played back to back by a single opera house.

If you act quickly and happen to live in the San Francisco Bay Area  you can see the entire Ring Cycle at the San Francisco opera for a limited time.

san francisco opera

Before I get ahead of myself,  I got initiated into opera at a young age.

My dad lay on the couch and I toddled into the room as he watched Placido Domingo in the role of Alfredo singing of drinking and living the good life boisterously as he locked eyes on new lady love Violetta. “La Traviata” holds a special place for me still today as my first opera with me lying beside my father crying at the end and wondering if the music had inspired the tears or the plot line. You can imagine how incredibly memorable it was then when friends, Katy, Alan, Raina and JoVincent sang several arias at our wedding reception. I smiled looking on and thinking how much my dad would have loved it.

Do you have a bucket list? During one conversation my Dad told me in that very Dad tone he took on when he stepped into the role of sensei-Dad, “I would like to go see the entire Ring Cycle before I die. Annelies, it’s loong, but if you can do it once, it’s worth it.” He never got to fulfill that desire and surprisingly the San Francisco opera opened its doors to lucky little me.

san francisco opera

I must admit that the San Francisco opera house is stunning inside. I snapped a few pics to bestow some of that glittery gloriousness to you. Dear Alastaire, one of my favorite tenors and a good friend, bestowed the honor and gift to me of attending the final dress rehearsals to “The Ring of the Nibelung.” For two weeks, my life revolved around the War Memorial house and I must say it was an exquisite escape from the everyday… I even took a half day vacation from work to see the rather lengthy “Göetterdämmerung”.

san francisco opera

That’s about 17 hours of opera. My dad wasn’t kidding, but here’s the thing- the storyline is fascinating, if not weird in certain parts that an hour breezes by without batting an eye.

Can I applaud publicly the San Francisco opera for running all four at the same time? *Applause* As someone transfixed when in a good tale, you really do miss something to see them years apart. Instead, if you’re able to see the four around the same time period, then it allows for a greater immersion into the story. (This reminds me of my renewed desire to watch all LOTR movies in a row sometime soon. If that appeals to you too, leave a comment. Maybe we’ll make it a party.) I’m going to try to succinctly summarize each of the story lines of the four operas today and tomorrow. So let’s get started…

I. Das Rheingold
II. Die Walküre
III. Siegfried
IV. Göetterdämmerung

 

Das Rheingold cover art

I. Das Rheingold

The Rhine maiden sing about the gold glittering at the bottom of the river. Suddenly a man appears entranced with them. As they are teasing him, one of them spills the secret of the gold in their river: if it is gathered and forged into a ring, the owner of that ring will rule the world. The thing is, they sing, you have to renounce love. This man turns out to be Alberich, lord of the underworld. He steals the gold and takes off much to the devastation of the Rhine maiden you hear bemoaning their lost gold later.

Wotan, the all-father (like Zeus) and his wife Fricka await word on the construction of Valhalla. Giants, Fafner and Fasolt, who are brothers, come bringing good news of the completion of Valhalla. With the good news comes the bad as they require the payment agreed upon by Wotan and the giants: Fricka’s sister Freia. Wotan never intended to pay by giving Freia to the giants and he begins looking for an alternative, waiting for the arrival of Loge, lord of fire. Loge tells them of Alberich’s deed and how he has forged the ring of power. Wotan and Loge contrive a plan to steal the ring on behalf of the giants and in exchange for Freia.

All goes as planned after Wotan and Loge visit the underworld. They watch Alberich boast of the magical properties of the Tarnhelm, crafted of river gold by Alberich’s brother Mime. When someone puts the Tarnhelm on, they can shapeshift or disappear. Loge tricks Alberich into turning himself into a toad and they whisk him and the treasures away. As they steal the ring and Tarnhelm from Alberich, he curses the ring and proclaims anyone who owns it will die.

Remember the ring has tricks of its own and a power no man can resist. Wotan struggles with giving the ring to the giants and receives heavy words from Erda, the lord of the earth. (Her voice was like hot buttered rolls. Silky, rich and smooth!) Wotan relents and watches as Fafner and Fasolt fight over who gets to wear the ring. Fafner kills his brother Fasolt and all are privvy to see the power of the ring. Fafner leaves with the newfound golden booty, the Tarnhelm and the ring. The gods set off for Valhalla.

[Things that happen in the interim of the story, between Operas I and II]

  • Fafner has turned himself into a dragon and is guarding his golden stash.
  • Wotan fathers his warrior daughter Brünnhilde and the eight other Valkyries, daughters of Erda
  • Wotan goes to earth and sires the mortal twins Siegmund and Sieglinde.

 

die walkure cover art

 

II. Die Walküre

A fugitive seeks refuge in Sieglinde’s house. She invites him in and feels herself drawn to this stranger, but lets him know he can stay only until her husband Hunding returns from a hunting expedition. Of course this doesn’t go over well with Hunding who hears this man’s story of woe and realizes the man he’s been searching for is now in his house. He offers a night of shelter to the fugitive and challenges him to a duel in the morning. The fugitive is unarmed but remembers something his father once told him- that there will be a sword in his hour of greatest need (Notung! I love the leitmotif used to sing about the sword!). In the middle of the night, Sieglinde has drugged Hunding and comes down and frees the fugitive. She tells him of her unhappiness and of the sword thrust into the ash tree in the middle of their house. An old man put it there saying only a man of noblest honor can pull it out. Sieglinde tells him Hunding and all of his cronies have tried and failed. She watches as he pulls the sword out, having a moment of clarity and recognizing her long lost twin brother Siegmund in this fugitive. They flee. (This is where it gets weird people. I’m not going to lie.) Siegmund and Sieglinde pledge themselves in love to each other as brother and sister AND in the husband and wife sort of way.

Meanwhile Wotan is happily ensconced in Valhalla, charging his warrior daughter Brünnhilde to take care of his mortal son Siegmund. (You are also introduced to the leitmotif for Brünnhilde which is an easily recognized bit of opera music in non-opera settings.)  Their meeting is cut short as Fricka enters upset and wheadles Wotan to strike down Siegmund by letting Hunding triumph. As the patron lord of marriage, Fricka requires it and is disgusted by the incestuous relationship that has destroyed the marriage. It’s also a barb at her philandering husband. Brünnhilde comes back in and her father tells her she must let Siegmund die in the duel. Ever in his mind, Wotan is constrained to take on the ring of power on his own. He has decreed he won’t and yet the ring remains in his thoughts. His Plan B of grooming Siegmund as a free mortal to seek out the ring is foiled.  Siegmund and Sieglinde are on the run from Hunding. As Sieglinde is resting, Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund in a dream and calls him to follow her to Valhalla. He refuses to go once she tells him that Sieglinde cannot accompany them. Brünnhilde finds herself moved by the twins’ devotion to each other and decides to go against the plan Wotan laid out. She decides to protect Siegmund and pledges to protect Sieglinde. We learn later that as the arm of Wotan she knew his conflict- wanting to protect his son, but being forced into an agreement with Fricka. Even as he clung to the agreement with Fricka, she tries to protect Siegmund. Hunding arrives and all hell breaks loose. Wotan shows up furious and shatters Siegmund’s all-powerful sword into pieces. Siegmund is struck and dies. Wotan has kept up his end of the bargain with Fricka and thus kills Hunding. Brünnhilde and Sieglinde escape with the shards of (Notung!) the sword. Wotan is seething with anger and looking for Brünnhilde.

Brünnhilde’s eight sisters, the Valkyrie head to Valhalla and learn of this rupture in their sister’s relationship with their Father as Brünnhilde shows up to Valhalla with Sieglinde. She tells them she is on the run from Wotan and asks them to help shelter her from his wrath. The Valkyrie are horrified and refuse. Brünnhilde tells them that Sieglinde is pregnant and they are roused to help her. Sieglinde beseeches them with a rousing plea and she escapes for the woods with the sword (Notung!) to dwell near the dragon Fafner, where Wotan is sure not to look. Wotan arrives looking for Brünnhilde intent on punishing her. He takes away her immortality and her role as a Valkyrie. He sentences her to a long sleep to be woken up by the first male that awakes her. (Lest you get all Snow White or Sleeping Beauty here, this is the worst thing she can imagine. As a warrior daughter, she is losing her independence to whoever rouses her. Desperately, she asks Wotan to let it be a man of honor and for an obstacle to be put in his way. This particular set of music is so poignant. The father and daughter talking through the difficulty of parting forever, of what went wrong. Wagner might as well hit me over the head with a two-by-four at this point.) Brünnhilde falls asleep on a rock and Wotan summons Loge to circle the rock with a ring of fire only the noblest of men can penetrate.

 

[Final notes:]

Nina Stemme who plays Brünnhilde could very well be the quintessential characterization of this role. Through her acting and vocalization, the audience is emotionally drawn into this heroine of heroines. Her lush and dramatic vocals both summon tears at times and smiles for her early bravado. Mark Delavan as Wotan carries the role well vocally and gives a commanding performance. I bring these two up because their synergy on stage is palpable. Together you sense the depth of their bond that is then inextricably severed.

At this point, you’d be 7 hours and 40 minutes in over two operas and several days. I say this because I feel like I skated over the storylines and left out the incredible subtleties worked into the operas.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2!