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