So this week we made it through to the end of part three of the Ring Cycle: Siegfried, or as I call it in my head “The Broventures of Siegfried.”
Ok, so, as we may recall from the end of Die Walkure, Brunnhilde gets sent to do the Sleeping Beauty thing, but in the process she rescued Sieglinde and sent her off to live in peace someplace. And she was pregnant at the time. “Call him Siegfried,” Brunnhilde suggests, all eagerness.
Spoiler in the title: Sieglinde does indeed call him that.
Unfortunately that’s the only contribution she’s going to make to this story, as she conveniently dies in childbirth, leaving us to spend almost the entirety of Act 1 watching Siegfried grudgingly engage with the only caretaker he’s ever known: a nasty little Nibelung we may all recall from Das Rheingold: Mime, brother of Alberich.
This may at first seem especially baffling considering that neither of them appear to like each other in the slightest, but Mime does spend a lot of time monologuing to himself, and so it is we learn that this is really just an attempt at a very long game: He’s banking on the idea that Siegfried will become the hero he is prophesied to be, and kill the current holder of that pesky ring of power this whole saga gets its name from: Fafner the giant, who thanks to the Tarnhelm has turned himself into a dragon. (Oddly, he hasn’t really done anything ELSE with either his draconic powers or all that gold, just appears to be hanging out with his hoard, sleeping a lot. Living his best life, I guess?)
Anyway. Siegfried’s super keen to get going on this whole heroing thing, or perhaps just to get the fuck away from his skeevy pseudo-parental figure, but before he can do that he needs a decent sword, and Mime’s been promising for years that he’ll fix up that busted one his Mom had when she died (Nothung, the sword extracted from the tree at Hunding’s place back in part 2.) Problem is, Mime hasn’t been able to mend the damn thing, despite his obviously strong smithing skills.
Cue the arrival of Wotan, not fooling anyone (…in the audience, anyway) by turning up dressed like a Neil Young cosplayer. In this disguise he wagers his head against Mime’s and we get one of those old-school “answer these questions” games. Mime isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is, so this is probably not going to go well for him, but we do learn a little something that may point to why he’s never had any luck with that sword: Only someone who doesn’t know what fear is can repair it.
And wouldn’t you know it, we happen to have just such a fellow right over there.
What follows may be summed up rather simply: Siegfried, who has no idea what it means to be afraid of anything, resolves the sword-forging problem himself – rather than attempt to repair a broken blade he files the whole thing down and forges himself a new one. (Whether there is a comment here on artists who are excessively careful in their output, and whether or not it is deliberate, I don’t know – but I do wonder if more of us might not benefit from melting our own swords down, whatever those swords may be.)
From there we’re off to the races – Siegfried sets out to the dragon Fafner’s cave, where for some reason Alberich is hanging out waiting for someone to do something about it so he can get the ring back. Along the way he has a pleasant chat to a little forest bird, who of course just sings wordlessly along.
Taking out Fafner is…not really any big deal at all, in the end; in what feels like just a few bars the former giant is sprawled on the forest floor, his blood already beginning to taint the nearby spring. It’s very hot blood, too; when Siegfried pulls the sword out the blood burns his hand, and he thoughtlessly sticks a finger into his mouth. In our world, this would be a terrifying health hazard, but in this world, it means he’s just gained the power to understand the speech of animals, so from his little bird friend he learns that there are two very particular items of treasure he might want to pick up – the ring, and the Tarnhelm that enabled that draconic transformation.
He has just time to pick them up before Mime makes his appearance, all set to murder him and take the reclaimed ring for his own. Unfortunately for him, Siegfried’s new language-comprehension powers extend to (strangely) the ability to comprehend Mime’s thoughts, and so it’s not that long before Mime joins Fafner on the forest floor, with a general air of “good riddance.”
You’d think this would be Alberich’s chance, wouldn’t you? But…no. Weirdly, for some reason, he does nothing, even as our hero sits there lamenting in an extremely bro-ish fashion that even slaying this dragon thing didn’t teach him how to be afraid and that sucks. (Why it is he wants this knowledge is unclear.)
Oh well. Whatever! The little bird has another
quest flag piece of information for him: High on a nearby mountaintop is a beautiful woman he can claim for his bride, if he is brave enough. Sounds like somewhere you could find fear, yeah? So off he goes.
Everything else from here is a foregone conclusion, really. Wotan shows up and (for some reason) puts forth a not entirely convincing resistance to letting Siegfried climb the mountain where Brunnhilde sleeps, and Siegfried shatters his spear (!) in the process. (That’s not going to have consequences or anything.) Siegfried climbs up the mountain, navigates the flames, and beholds the first woman he’s ever seen.
We get a lengthy and somewhat odd scene between Siegfried and Brunnhilde where Brunnhilde realizes that she’s in love with Siegfried (that was fast) but also is feeling the onset of mortality and cue existential crisis but also oh my god isn’t this dude hot, and where Siegfried at first thinks he’s learned fear but wait no actually maybe it was just the onset of his first experience of lust. Oh well, what the heck, now he has a woman!
This production of Siegfried is a bit more compelling than the last one we saw – possibly because the performers for both Mime and (crucially) Siegfried himself were a lot more into their roles, hamming it up from time to time and injecting humor into the proceedings as our somewhat exasperatingly-self-confident-yet-uninformed hero derps his way through Germanic Mythology-land doing his own personal riff on one of the lesser-known tales of the Brothers Grimm. The effects are also particularly spectacular in this one, with the piles of projected fallen leaves skittering away as Siegfried kicks at them, or a digital version of the little bird whose beak somehow is able to follow along with the singer’s voice exactly.
This show is a beast, though, with a full production running something like six hours. Anyone’s attention span might well be flagging by the end of it, and I admit mine was a bit by the end of that odd little love scene. (Is it a love scene really?)
There is something really sort of irritating in having a hero who is a decent but remarkably incurious fellow who insists on reminding you every couple of minutes that by the way he’s terribly brave, you know, never been afraid of anything in his life. Siegfried’s all right and all, and the performer playing him does a great job with one of the most legendarily difficult roles in all of opera…
But I cannot help but feel that Brunnhilde deserved better. (Then again, I suppose we’ll be getting to that as the cycle concludes.)