Blogging Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Götterdämmerung, Act II

Act II of Götterdämmerung is full of intrigue—the deceptive plans laid in Act I start to unravel, and the arcs of most of the characters move in deliberately discomforting directions.

The act opens with Hagen on stage alone, and in this staging, we’re in pure retrofuturistic territory: the video screens in the background display tangled contraptions made of whirling gears and pistons. Through this cycle, that kind of imagery has been associated with Alberich, and indeed, here he comes, via jetpack (granted, the singer is held up by cables, and he’s just got a couple of tanks strapped to his back that squirt smoke from a nozzle, but it’s still a cool effect). It turns out that Alberich has taken a page from Wotan’s playbook, having fathered Hagen (who shares a mother with Gunther) primarily to serve his own ends. Speaking to Hagen, who is in a twilight sleep, Alberich urges Hagen to acquire the Ring and bring it to him; Hagen, however, will agree only to acquire the Ring for himself. Alberich, resigned to this, exits (or, in this particular case, floats away) and the lights come up as Siegfried returns, having removed the magic helm, resumed his original form, and switched places with Gunther (who is now with Brünnhilde, and on his way home with her).

There’s a great musical moment here when Hagen summons the Gibichung vassals—at first, it seems as if he’s summoning them to war (“You men of Gibich,/bestir yourselves!/Woe! Woe!/To arms! To arms!”), but once they arrive (and here these dozens of male singers are all clothed in black suits with red armbands, bespectacled and wielding blackjacks), Hagen informs him that they’ll need those weapons not for war, but to sacrifice animals to please the gods who will, in turn, bless the wedding of Gunther and his new bride. Terror turns to joy on their faces, and as Gunther and Brünnhilde arrive by boat, the celebration begins.

Brünnhilde is not in the mood for celebration, and her mood gets worse when she sees sleazeball Siegfried canoodling with his new wife Gutrune, and it gets even worse when she spies the Ring on Siegfried’s finger. She calls a halt to the proceedings, and what starts out as a wedding reception slowly transforms into a trial as Brünnhilde points out the obvious—if it was Gunther who took the ring from Brünnhilde, what is it doing on Siegfried’s finger? (It’s worth noting here that Siegfried drew his power to assume Gunther’s form from the helm, which Gunther knows about, not from the Ring, which only Hagen has much of an idea about. If the narrative of the Ring Cycle has one problem, it’s that there are too many overpowered talismans floating around, so much so that the Ring itself is sometimes not even that threatening.)

The presence of the Ring lets Brünnhilde know enough to put the pieces together and deduce that she’s been had—that Siegfried assumed Gunther’s form when stepping through the ring of fire. We also find, however, that the audience has been had by Siegfried as well—that Siegfried did in fact not place a sword between them when they lay on their marriage bed, as he said he would in Act I, and that Gunther has in fact been dishonored. (The reason this narrative twist works is that it turns on a convention of storytelling in opera that implies that when a character speaks out into the audience, if not directly to the audience, then we assume that what he or she is saying it a representation of his actual thoughts and intentions. We expect that Siegfried would lie to Gunther or Brünnhilde, but surely he wouldn’t lie to us. Or perhaps it’s Brünnhilde that’s the liar here—we aren’t allowed to know.)

The mood gets darker as people get angrier and take oaths on the blades of spears and swords (and the twists and turns of the plot as well as a description of how this is staged would be too intricate for this post, but let it suffice to say that if you’ve ever wondered if a man can sing opera while suspended upside-down by his feet, the answer is yes, though his voice may not fill the hall as it usually does). Finally, Siegfried gets everyone at least temporarily calmed down for long enough for him to skulk away to his wedding procession, taking Gutrune with him.

WIth Brünnhilde left alone with Gunther and Hagen, the thoughts of the three of them all turn to revenge. Hagen leads the others to complicity merely by making statements that are true (but leaving out certain important facts, as when Hagen reminds Brünnhilde that Siegfried deceived her, without noting that the whole plan to marry Gutrune to Siegfried was Hagen’s idea in the first place!). Under Hagen’s guidance Brünnhilde comes to see herself as grievously hoodwinked, while Gunther sees himself as betrayed by his blood brother; Hagen, meanwhile, is casting around for any possible weakness that Siegfried might have in combat, asking leading questions about how he could be killed, were the opportunity to arise.

It’s here that we get a quick exposition dump—we find that upon her marriage to Siegfried, Brünnhilde cast a number of spells on him meant to make him invulnerable. But Brünnhilde neglected to give the treatment to his back, since Siegfried is a man who always faces his enemies. (The silent version of Siegfried directed by Fritz Lang, which I linked to in an earlier post, handles the introduction of this crucial detail more gracefully, I think—first of all, it’s brought in far earlier in the narrative, so that it doesn’t seem like an afterthought when it’s mentioned again; second, the vulnerability is brought about by accident instead of human error, due to a leaf that gets inadvertently stuck to Siegfried’s back while he’s undergoing the process that makes him invulnerable to weapons). With this information revealed, Gunther, Brünnhilde, and Hagen swear to exact revenge (with all three of them singing at once—note that while Gunther and Brünnhilde beseech Wotan to assist them with carrying out this deed, Hagen, at the side of the stage, calls out to his true master, Alberich).

At this moment we’re brought quickly back to Siegfried’s wedding procession, whose joyously uplifting music is slathered in irony—as (in this staging) ballet dancers cavort across the stage and dozens and dozens of extras cheer in the background, Brünnhilde and Gunther join Siegfried and Gutrune in celebration. But all of their smiles seem false.

Next: Act III.

Dexter Palmer is the author of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, available from St. Martin’s Press.


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