Wagner has a reputation for being heavy going—five-hour operas; complex music; libretti that deal with the nature of free will and the end of the world—but with Act II of Siegfried he takes a welcome if temporary detour into farce. This act isn’t flat-out comic opera, but it may possibly be the funniest act in the Ring Cycle, and the La Fura Dels Baus staging makes the choice to play it broadly.
The act begins with poor, pathetic Alberich standing watch over the entrance to Fafner’s cave, the current home of the Ring he forged himself. It so happens that the Wanderer from Act I shows up to stand vigil with him, and Alberich immediately identifies him as Wotan, refusing to be tricked by him again as he was in Das Rheingold. There is a bit more recapping of previous events here, detailing the reasons why neither of them can just walk into the cave and get the Ring for themselves—Alberich is obviously too weak, and Wotan is bound by the contract engraved on his spear. Alberich also boasts about his plans for ruling the world once he somehow gets his hands on the Ring again, and Wotan, with a sense of playfulness, offers to wake Fafner for him.
The depiction of Fafner the dragon is managed spectacularly well here. Most of the production design in this act tends toward abstraction, and the way the dragon manifests himself is through dozens of spandex-clad dancers who lock themselves together in chains, legs wrapped around each others’ arms, writhing around on the floor like giant tendrils. The effect is an abstract suggestion of the reptilian and the monstrous, rather than the thing itself, and it’s much more terrifying than whatever I was expecting to see on the stage.
Once Wotan wakes the dragon, Alberich warns him that a hero is coming to dispatch him, and offers to (somehow) prevent the fight if Fafner will hand over the ring. But Fafner mocks Alberich, dismisses the idea of being slain as an idle threat, and goes back to sleep. Wotan and Alberich withdraw, and soon after, the sun rises and Mime and Siegfried arrive.
Mime still believes that the dragon will teach Siegfried the nature of fear, but though he describes its horrific attributes—enormous jaws, acid for blood, etc.—Siegfried cavalierly dismisses these as minor inconveniences. Mime informs Siegfried that Fafner will soon come to the lake they’re standing near to refresh himself. He offers to refresh Siegfried after his battle with a drink (spiked with poison, of course), and withdraws himself, leaving Siegfried by himself to wait.
Once alone, Siegfried falls into reverie, lamenting the things he does not know: not just the nature of fear, but the character of his mother and the identity of his father. While this happens, a woodbird or Waldvogel appears (and here this is portrayed by a woman wearing mechanical wings, standing on a platform that suspended from the ceiling by cables), and Siegfried also laments that he cannot understand her language.
(An interesting thing here is that the narrative is constructed such that the key moments are ones in which Siegfried acquires information—it’s not inaccurate to call this opera in the cycle a Bildungsroman, a work about the education of a young man and his coming of age. Another likely influence here is the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Story of the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear”: both Siegfried and the protagonist of the Grimm story derive their courage from ignorance.)
In an attempt to communicate with her, Siegfried begins to play music—first on a reed, and then on the horn he carries with him. Eventually, in a bit of fourth-wall breaking, he plays his own leitmotif (and does Siegfried actually realize that he has a theme song?) and this summons the dragon to drink. Again, this is done well—here, in addition to the chains of dancers mentioned above, this time the dragon is also represented by a gigantic hydraulic-powered contraption that looks something like a Rubik’s Snake. As Siegfried speaks to it, it dips its head into the lake signified by the orchestra pit, to the consternation of the musicians seated beneath it.
After some dialogue between Siegfried and Fafner, they engage in combat, and Siegfried, wielding the sword Nothung, slays Fafner easily. In the process, though, he burns his hands with the dragon’s blood and ends up ingesting it as he puts his wounded hands to his mouth. This blood grants him a power that can be loosely defined as the power of true interpretation. First he encounters the woodbird again, who, it turns out, has been tweeting away the entire plot of the Ring cycle this whole time! She quickly points Siegfried to the shapeshifting helm and the Ring in Fafner’s hoard, and since Mime and Alberich were both relying on Siegfried not knowing what those things were, their plans are now upended.
Second, we find that the dragon’s blood has given Siegfried the gift to see through duplicity, and something clever and comical happens here when Mime returns to the stage, planning to bring about Siegfried’s death. The idea here is that Siegfried (and the audience) can hear what Mime means, but not what he says. And so during Mime’s conversation with Siegfried, the light, lilting tone of the music conveys the nature of Mime’s deceptive speech (whose text we aren’t privy to), but that tone contrasts sharply with the actual text of the opera, in which Mime unwittingly details his plans to hack off Siegfried’s head with his own sword. It’s here that the farce reaches its climax, with Mime unknowingly uttering one insult after another with a smile on his face until Siegfried interrupts by unceremoniously stabbing him, bringing about the fulfillment of the bargain made between Mime and the Wanderer in Act I. As Alberich laughs at this offstage, Siegfried then drags the bodies of Mime and Fafner back into the cave, to watch over the hoard together.
The act ends with a brief epilogue in which Siegfried laments that unlike many of the animals he’s seen in the world, he does not have a “boon companion.” He asks the woodbird for advice about this (since she worked out so well for him the last time), and of course the woodbird happens to mention this woman she’s heard about named Brünnhilde, who’s surrounded by a ring of fire. "Maybe this woman will teach me about fear!" Siegfried says gaily, and charges off to find her. Well, maybe.
Next: Act III. (But a final note: one might find it interesting to compare Wagner’s telling of this story to Fritz Lang’s later retelling in his silent film Siegfried, based not on the Wagner opera, but on the myths and stories from which this opera is also derived. Kage Baker previously covered that film here on Tor.com; it’s available on Youtube here.)
Dexter Palmer is the author of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, available from St. Martin’s Press.