The final act of the final opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle takes us, appropriately, back to the very beginning. Remember the Rhinemaidens? They’re back, and just as they were in this company’s staging of Das Rheingold, they’re submerged to their waists in tanks of water. (In case this hasn’t been made clear from previous postings, this version of the Ring cycle is notable for how grueling it must have been for its singers, who have been dunked in water, whipped through the air on cranes, and hung upside-down). Here they’re singing of their lost gold, envying the sun for having the light that once belonged to their dearest possession, when along comes Siegfried, on the hunt that’s been organized by Hagen. He’s lost the trail of the game and ended up here instead. (His appearance here is a composite of the wild man of the cycle’s third opera and the dandy in the tailored suit of Götterdämmerung, Act II.)
Again, this scene recalls the first scene of Das Rheingold, except that Siegfried is a much better flirt than poor Alberich, taking the Rhinemaidens’ taunts with good humor and giving back his own in return, eventually taking the Ring from his finger and dangling it in front of them. At this, the Rhinemaidens become uncharacteristically serious and threatening, saying that the best course of action is actually for Siegfried to keep the Ring until he finds out how evil it actually is, the better to be relieved at the Rhinemaidens’ offer to take it off his hands. Siegfried, of course, ignores them.
At this point, we shift to the hunting party, which Siegfried soon rejoins. Since he’s failed to kill any game, Siegfried has to fall on the mercy of the rest of the hunters for his dinner—he does this with bonhomie, offering to tell them tales of his boyhood days in exchange. He’s also thirsty, and Hagen, conveniently, offers him something to drink (which is of course spiked with a potion, and which reverses the effect of the potion that Siegfried drank earlier in the opera, restoring his lost memory). Cheerfully, Siegfried begins to recount the events of the third opera, up to and including his rescue of Brünnhilde from the ring of fire, which is news to Gunther.
(The question I have here is to what extent Siegfried is a creature of guile and cunning—surely the man who was clever enough to disguise himself as Gunther to retrieve Brünnhilde from the ring of fire the second time would not make a mistake as goofy as this. Does he exhibit the ability to deceive only when he’s under the influence of Hagen’s first potion? Is it implied that the temporary loss of his memory altered his character as well?)
Alarmed, Gunther cries “What’s that I hear?” just as two ravens (the ones that Wotan sent earlier to spy on the fate of the Ring) fly from the bushes nearby. And it’s now that Hagen stabs Siegfried in the back with his spear. Siegfried collapses, and dies soon after singing his regretful goodbyes to Brünnhilde (which in this staging is actually rather affecting—it’s a cliché of opera that the dying always have enough life left in them for one last aria, but here Lance Ryan is able to sell this).
Siegfried is then borne away in a funeral march, and the music here is second only to Ride of the Valkyries in the frequency of its appearances outside the Ring Cycle—its most notable appearance is probably in the film Excalibur. (Though this staging handles Siegfried’s death with appropriate pomp and stateliness, a bit of dark comedy is lent to the proceedings here by a tag on his toe with his name.)
In the final scene of Götterdämmerung, so much happens that the depiction on stage must, out of necessity, tend toward the abstract. We begin back in the Gibichungs’ hall, with Gutrune suspended above the stage in her miniature Death Star (which I’m still puzzled by); she’s walking on a treadmill inside, which I presume is how she keeps her figure. She’s listening for Siegfried’s horn, which fails to sound; eventually, dark-humored Hagen enters the hall announcing that they’ve brought back the spoils of the chase, which include, of course, Siegfried’s corpse, the Ring still on his finger.
The question at the moment is: who gets the Ring? Hagen claims it as his by right; Gunther claims that it’s Gutrune’s inheritance. Hagen responds to this by killing Gunther (with a sword in the original libretto; with a pistol here). Chaos breaks out as, on top of that, the dead hand of Siegfried rises from its coffin, the Ring still upon it. Then Brünnhilde appears, assertive once more, demanding silence.
The Ring, she says, is hers—she was Siegfried’s lawful wife, and the loss of his memory and any subsequent events are irrelevant. Gutrune realizes the extent of Hagen’s duplicity (“How swiftly I see it now!/Brünnhild’ was his one true love/whom the philtre made him forget”). In this staging this revelation leads to a quick moment of female bonding not present in the original text, where Brünnhilde and Gutrune embrace—presumably they’ve been taken advantage of by the same man, but all is forgiven between them. However, this doesn’t really fit with the dialogue (Brünnhilde: “Wretched woman, peace!/You were never his lawful wife/as wanton alone/you bound him”).
Brünnhilde now commands the Gibichung vassals to build a funeral pyre, while she sings a tearful, enraged farewell to Siegfried. When the pyre is lit, her plan is to ride her horse, Grane, into the flames, immolating herself while wearing the Ring: the fire will cleanse the Ring of its curse, and the Rhinemaidens will be free to retrieve it, putting things back where they started.
You can imagine that this might be difficult to portray on stage. Here is an excerpt from the libretto (this, like all the excerpts I’ve used in these posts, is from the translation by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington):
With a single bound she urges the horse into the blazing pyre. The flames immediately flare up so that the fire fills the entire space in front of the hall an appears to seize on the building itself. [...] At the same time the Rhine overflows its banks in a mighty flood, sweeping over the conflagration. The three Rhinedaughters are borne along on its waves and now appear over the scene of the fire. Hagen [...] hastily throws aside his spear, shield and helmet and plunges into the floodwaters like a man possessed, shouting the words: Get back from the Ring!
Needless to say, this can’t be portrayed literally with the resources available, and so even though the flames of the pyre are spectacularly rendered on the video screens at the back of the stage, Brünnhilde’s horse is imaginary (it’s represented by one of the cranes used to haul the gods through the air in the cycle’s earlier operas). The Rhinemaidens are in their tanks on the stage, as before, and Brünnhilde throws the Ring to them as the crane takes her offstage. Hagen runs up to the tanks and collapses before them, in lieu of wading into the Rhine to be drowned by Woglinde and Wellgunde, as in the libretto.
Finally, Valhalla collapses—as in Das Rheingold, it is represented by a cylindrical lattice of dozens of acrobats, clad in spandex and supported by cables, their hands grasping the feet of those above. As Loge comes onstage (riding the same Segway as he was in Das Rheingold), he gestures toward the column of acrobats—they then begin to twitch and writhe and finally lets themselves hang freely from the cables, as good a depiction of the destruction of Valhalla as any. The music winds down into silence, and the curtain falls.
Man, was that a lot of complicated music to listen to. There’s a difference between just saying you’re going to listen to fifteen hours of opera and actually doing it.
This is my second time listening to the Ring cycle in its entirety, though, and on this trip through it really came together for me—the most important thing I got out of it the first time I listened to it is that I’d have to listen to it again to make sense of it. But it was more than worthwhile—some parts of this (the first scene of Das Rheingold; The Ride of the Valkyries in Die Walküre; Act II of Siegfried; Siegfried’s death in Götterdämmerung) are my favorite moments in all of opera, and the shape of the narrative and the use of leitmotifs make much more sense to me now (with the exception of Act III of Siegfried, which I still found tough going). That said, there is something about the nature of the applause at the end of this staging of Götterdämmerung—even by opera standards, it goes on forever—that gives the impression that the audience is applauding not just the performers, but themselves.
How do I feel about this staging as a whole? I definitely liked the experience of watching it, though I can’t say I approved of every single aesthetic decision. But the things that annoyed me annoyed me in interesting ways, which, I imagine, was what La Fura Dels Baus was going for.
I can see myself viewing the recordings of these operas again at some point in the future, but this is definitely not a staging I would recommend for someone new to the Ring—it works best when compared with one’s memories of more traditional productions. In my opinion, your best choice for a first Ring is probably either the Decca release conducted by Georg Solti that’s available on CD, or the Ring conducted by James Levine and directed by Otto Schenk that’s on a set of DVDs released by the Metropolitan Opera. If you have a Blu-ray and surround sound setup, the La Fura Dels Baus Ring is generally amazing from a technical perspective—at times it’s like watching the opera through a window—but that’s still not enough to offset the essential oddness of it for the Ring novice.
When will I listen to this music again? Probably not until spring 2012, when (if I have the money and time, and I’m near NYC) I’m hoping to get to the Met Opera’s staging of the full cycle, directed by Robert Lepage. This trailer posted on the Met Opera’s site gives the impression that they’re splitting the difference between the more traditional Schenk Ring and the more unconventional versions that have become more prevalent lately, so perhaps that’ll be well-received by the Met’s notoriously conservative audience.
Finally: what follows is a list of links to all the posts I’ve made on the Ring cycle: in addition, Tor.com poster G-Campbell has a post about the Rhine river on her blog that’s worth your time, with great photos and more material to come that’s related to the Ring cycle’s source material.
Die Walküre, Act I
Die Walküre, Act II
Die Walküre, Act III
Siegfried, Act I
Siegfried, Act II
Siegfried, Act III
Götterdämmerung, Act I
Götterdämmerung, Act II
Thanks for reading!
Dexter Palmer is the author of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, available from St. Martin’s Press.