Blogging Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Götterdämmerung, Act I

Act I of Götterdämmerung is the strangest act of all the operas in this version of the cycle, as far as its staging goes. It takes place in the hall of the Gibichungs—the three characters on stage are Gunther, his half-brother Hagen who’s a sort of advisor figure, and Gunther’s sister Gutrune. All three of these characters are figured as greedy capitalists here: Gunther’s and Hagen’s suits are covered with currency symbols, and their faces are painted white, with more symbols painted over them in black and red. (This has the unfortunate effect of making them look like the unacknowledged capitalist exiles from Insane Clown Posse, but we will pass that by.)

Gutrune, on the other hand, does not have a painted face, but does have her own personal Death Star, which is lowered from the ceiling with her inside when she’s introduced. It’s just large enough to hold a person, and we see Gutrune sticking her head out of the hole where the Death Star’s superlaser should be, waving cheerfully. (I mean—that is the Death Star, right? You don’t look at a sphere shaped like that, with a large circular hole halfway above the equator, and not think it’s the Death Star.) I like the idea of SF tropes and iconography cropping up in other works of art, one of the reasons I got into watching this revisionist version of the Ring Cycle in the first place, but at this point I cannot help but feel I am perhaps being made fun of. I’m not really sure what’s going on here.

Gunther and Gutrune are an enervated pair of siblings, dissolute and lacking the will to get what they want from life, even though they’re rolling in money (empty martini glasses sit everywhere; numbers float by on the screens in the background, a surreal version of a stock market ticker). So Hagen gives them some advice, since, like the woodbird of Siegfried, he has apparently heard something of the events of the previous operas—he knows of a woman trapped in a ring of fire that would make a good wife for Gunther, as well as a hero who’s capable of entering that ring of fire, and who would make a good husband for Gutrune. For some reason, Hagen believes that Siegfried, this hero, is due to drop in at any point during his wandering around the world, and so Hagen’s plan is to use a potion to, essentially, bend Siegfried to the will of the Gibichungs. Siegfried will fall in love with Gutrune and will win Brünnhilde for Gunther; Gutrune will then wed Siegfried in turn.

On cue, we hear Siegfried’s horn, and he enters the hall and receives the hospitality of the Gibichungs. The staging here is as clever as the ersatz Death Star is weird (though perhaps the Death Star is meant to associate the Gibichungs with the Empire of the Star Wars movies? That would be a fun reading, and since the score from Star Wars does quote Wagner on a number of occasions, there’s a kind of logic to it. But it’s still weird, and it’s a reading that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny). Gunther and Gutrune get a whiff of Siegfried and fan their noses while his attention’s elsewhere, and after a covert conversation (while Siegfried is singing about the simple pleasures of being Siegfried) they send him off to the side of the stage, behind an erected screen, where he undergoes a wardrobe change with clothes provided by the Gibichung’s servants.

When Siegfried comes out from behind the screen, he looks like someone out of the cast of Mad Men—dark blue suit; hair slicked back; large plastic Clark Kent glasses. Even before he takes the potion, then, his corruption by the material things of the world has already begun.

Another thing to note here is that the tenor singing Siegfried, Lance Ryan, changes his body language to fit this new incarnation of the character, and it’s at this point that you can see he was going somewhere all along with this performance. After he quaffs the drink that’s been spiked with a potion by Gutrune (toasting Brünnhilde, ironically) he switches from boyish naïvete to predatory aggression, pinning Gutrune to a dining table and climbing on top of her while singing the praises of her beauty, spitting the words into her face. It’s a surprising, disturbing moment.

Having fallen for Gutrune (and again, the body language here makes it clear that sex is trumping romance) Siegfried cuts a deal with Gunther—using the shapeshifting helm he retrieved from Fafner’s hoard back in the last opera, he’ll disguise himself as Gunther, enter the ring of fire that protects Brünnhilde, and claim her for Gunther. Then Siegfried will take Gutrune for his own wife. This will all work out fine, and Siegfried and Gunther, now blood brothers, head back up the Rhine, leaving Hagen alone to consider his progress toward power.

But isn’t Brünnhilde already married to Siegfried, at least by the rules laid down when Wotan made the ring of fire? That’s what I thought, and that’s clearly also what Brünnhilde thinks in the next scene (even though Siegfried’s forgotten all this). In fact, when Waltraute, one of the Valkyries who’s still in Wotan’s good graces, comes in secret to visit her at the ring of fire, Siegfried is all Brünnhilde can talk about. Unfortunately, terrible things are going on back in Valhalla. Quickly, Waltraute fills Brünnhilde in on the same material that the Norns delivered to the audience in the Prologue—the felling of Yggdrasil; the logs laid at Valhalla’s base, waiting to catch flame—adding that the only thing that will make Wotan happy is if Brünnhilde relinquishes the Ring, throwing it in the Rhine and back to the Rhinemaidens who were charged with the gold in the first place.

But Brünnhilde is having none of that. For her, it’s a token of Siegfried’s love, and that means more to her, literally, than the end of the world. The argument between Brünnhilde and Waltraute escalates to a fight (in this staging) that Waltraute loses; in despair, she leaves Brünnhilde to gaze at the ring and wait for her love (“my god,” she calls him).

But that love turns out, it appears, to be someone else. When Siegfried appears, he stands in the shadows, wearing the helm and Gunther’s clothes, speaking in his voice (and here, Ryan has a psychopath’s grin on his face. This guy would make a great villain in a horror movie). Brünnhilde, shocked, wants to know who this is, and Siegfried-as-Gunther (having forgotten his own earlier entrance into the ring of fire, due to the potion) announces that as last, someone worthy of Brünnhilde has won her. And this tears Brünnhilde apart—it is clear that this is little more than a dissolute, insignificant man, not a hero.

But Brünnhilde still has the Ring! “This makes me stronger than steel,” she sings in threat, but then Siegfried attacks her and takes the ring from her finger (which is a narrative twist that, I suppose, we have to accept. Though in this staging it’s made slightly more plausible by Siegfried walking straight up to Brünnhilde, throwing his chest out as if daring her to attack him, and then slapping her across the face and taking the Ring when she fails to act). He then claims her as his wife (and the stage lighting goes blood-red here as the marriage bed of the Prologue is revealed in a new incarnation—it’s now covered with a dozen men and women writhing in a manner that’s clearly intended to connote an orgy). Siegfried makes it clear that the sword Nothung will lie between him and Brünnhilde on their bed (to preserve her virginity for the real Gunther, we’re meant to take it), and the act ends.

At this moment in the Ring Cycle, the predominant mood is terror. But there’s also a feeling (and perhaps this is on my mind after hearing so many people complain about the ending of Lost in these past few days) that this terror is something that’s been slowly building up in the narrative all along—that despite quibbles one might have with the story’s logic, the story knows where it’s going, and has from the beginning. You might not like where it ends up, but you won’t feel completely cheated, and for a series of four operas written over 23 years, that’s something of an achievement.

Next: Act II.

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


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