Blogging Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Siegfried, Act I

I’m now back to blogging my way through the La Fura Dels Baus staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, starting up again with Act I of the third of four operas, Siegfried.

As mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts, this is a non-traditional staging of the Ring, with imagery lifted from SF rather than high fantasy. When we’re introduced to Mime at the beginning of this opera, the dwarf who first made his appearance as Alberich’s maltreated brother in Das Rheingold, the design appears to be heavily influenced by David Lynch’s gorgeous adaptation of Dune: with a balding head, and a face covered in strange growths, and a coat decorated with an array of plastic tubes, Mime seems like a smaller version of Lynch’s Baron Harkonnen. Unfortunately, Siegfried, the character with whom Mime shares the first scene of the act, resembles nothing so much as the alien villains of the film version of Battlefield Earth, and for those who’ve encountered that movie, it’ll be hard to look past this similarity without experiencing traumatic flashbacks.

Mime’s monologues during this first act are mostly asides that paint him as secretive and scheming. His grand plan is to get hold of the Ring of the Nibelung forged by Alberich in Das Rheingold, which is now in the custody of Fafner the dragon (who was once a giant—see Wotan’s long aria in Act II of Die Walküre for an explanation of that transformation). Mime believes that with the Ring he’ll be able to get his revenge for his mistreatment at Alberich’s hands, but there are some problems: first, the only weapon likely to be able to kill Fafner is the shattered sword Nothung, which Mime lacks the talent to mend. The second problem is Siegfried.

Siegfried (the product of the incestuous relationship between Sieglinde and Siegmund in Die Walküre) has been adopted and raised by Mime for the purpose of slaying Fafner, but in these opening moments of the opera Siegfried seems unlikely to choose to do it—he is a creature of his own free will, as Wotan hoped he’d turn out to be, but he’s also naïve, childlike, untutored, and in love with his own strength. It’s implied that Mime has been forging lesser swords for him that he keeps breaking, and much of this first scene consists of Siegfried hectoring Mime to create the weapon that can stand up to his abuse.

Siegfried also asks Mime about the circumstances of his birth (having cleverly deduced that since he and Mime look nothing alike, he’s missing something). This gives Mime a chance to recount a few events that took place between the end of Die Walküre and the beginning of this opera: Sieglinde’s escape from Wotan and her decision to hand the newborn Siegfried and the fragments of Nothung over to Mime for custody. Mime tells Siegfried some of the truth, but not all, pleading ignorance (though we find out from the second scene of the act that he’s aware of almost all of Siegfried’s whole backstory). Siegfried, satisfied, runs off to the forest to do whatever Siegfried does: slaying animals; singing rousing songs; getting back to nature.

As soon as Siegfried leaves, Mime is visited by a mysterious Wanderer who seeks shelter (and remember the opening act of Die Walküre, which establishes the sacrosanct nature of rules regarding hospitality in the world of these operas). One can’t help but notice that this Wanderer has only one eye like Wotan, and carries a spear like Wotan, and is performed by the same singer who sung Wotan in the other operas of the cycle so far. At any rate, after a little opening dialogue, the Wanderer and Mime end up in a game that involved them wagering their heads based on their ability to answer questions about the world. This game cleverly provides an excellent chance for Wagner to summarize the major events of the first two operas—say what you will about his byzantine plotting, but he does what he can to assist the audience in following along.

Mime ends up, in some sense, losing this game of wits—though he chooses to ask the Wanderer questions about the nature of gods and giants that he believes will prove to stump him, Mime fails to ask the question that, says the Wanderer, is the thing he needs to know: essentially, the identity of the person who can forge Nothung anew. Before the Wanderer leaves, he decrees that Mime will forfeit his head to the person who re-forges the sword (who must also be a person “without fear”), and it’s just at this time that fearless Siegfried returns, proclaiming that since Mime doesn’t have the skills to repair Nothung, then he, Siegfried, will handle it himself.

The third and final scene of this act is taken up with the re-making of the sword, with Siegfried singing spiritedly as he reduces the blade to filings and re-forges the entire thing from scratch (rather than using lesser materials to weld the two fragments of the sword together). Meanwhile, Mime promises to teach Siegfried fear (an emotion that Siegfried is completely innocent of, and therefore doesn’t know he should dislike). The way to do this is, of course, to introduce Siegfried to Fafner the dragon (once he’s conveniently done with forging Nothung). It seems, at the moment, that this is a win-win situation for Mime—either Fafner will destroy Siegfried, in which case Mime will continue to have the pleasure of keeping his head on his shoulders even if he doesn’t get the Ring, or Siegfried will slay Fafner, in which case Mime (who “forges” a poisoned potion meant for Siegfried at the same time that Siegfried forges Nothung) will then be able to acquire the Ring of the Nibelung, and ultimate power with it. But one gets the feeling things won’t turn out in the way Mime expects.

How do I feel about this experimental staging of Siegfried so far? On balance I think I admire the attempt more than the execution, if that makes sense. There are some things that work well for me (as when, during the part where Mime is describing the nature of fear, Siegfried is walking on a treadmill with heart monitors attached to his chest while the screens at the back of the stage display nifty X-rays of his body, along with vital statistics. There’s also the way this production deals with depicting the game in which Mime and the Wanderer wager their heads, a surprise that I won’t spoil here). And there are things that don’t work for me (Siegfried’s costume, as mentioned above, as well as the moment at the end of the act when Siegfried raises the re-forged Nothung triumphantly, and dozens of extras on stage suddenly collapse to the floor and engage in a sort of dance that’s half malfunctioning robot, half epileptic fit). But you can’t say that La Fura Dels Baus isn’t at least trying something new.

Next: Act II.

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


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