Continuing our series, Simon Thomas guides us through part three of Wagner’s Ring Cycle
Siegfried is the third part (or second if you consider Das Rheingold to be just a prelude) of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I have to confess a part of my attachment to the opera is a sentimental one. Siegfried was the second opera I bought on record (after Die fliegende Holländer) and the second I saw live in the theatre (after Tannhäuser). It was the first opera about which I became truly obsessive.
The recording of Siegfried I bought was the English language version, from the Sadler’s Wells / English National Opera production conducted by Reginald Goodall, which was newly released at the time. That first production I saw was the Götz Friedrich one at Covent Garden and shortly after I saw the complete cycle at the Coliseum under Goodall, with the same cast as the recording: Alberto Remedios, Norman Bailey, Rita Hunter et al.
At the age of 16, I was completely swept up by the magic of The Ring and its power to seduce. It was partly the Lord of the Rings-type world of dwarves, giants, gods and goddesses but mostly the music, which reaches parts you didn’t know you had. As time went on, the ‘problem’ of Wagner became more apparent to me. This is nowhere more evident than in Siegfried (with the possible exception of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg).
For a lot of people Siegfried is the least favourite episode of the Ring Cycle because of the difficulties we have reconciling the utterly beguiling music and stagecraft with the ideas that we know lie underneath. Siegfried is such a problem because the central character is a blue-eyed blond hero who pushes around the dark, nasty little villains purely on the basis that he knows he’s a superior being. It’s pretty uncomfortable stuff and I must say the opera dwindled in my affections for many years, following that initial infatuation.
Whether or not ‘it’s all right’ to like Wagner is a circle that each individual has to square and for some people it may just be impossible to separate the magnificence of the music and the artistic vision from the inherent views on humanity.Tolkien scholars argue among themselves about how racist he was, while millions of cinemagoers just indulge themselves in the fantasy. Even Star Wars fans have to decide whether the colour schemes of Jedis and Siths are socially acceptable. Admittedly, Wagner is a more extreme case but most of us nowadays have sometimes to reconcile our relationships to the artworks we love and the lives and behaviour of their creators or the choices they make.
“…I was completely swept up by the magic of The Ring and its power to seduce”
The Russian music director of the London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski, who was undertaking a concert series of the Ring just prior to lockdown (funnily enough it halted with Siegfried back in February), was quoted as saying, “The main point of interest is the music itself.” That’s an easily challenged standpoint but I guess it’s one that I largely share.
The music in the opera is magnificent, from the thrilling forge scene, which ends the first act, the gently evocative ‘forest murmurs’, excitement of the dragon slaying and stratospheric warbling of the Woodbird in the middle act, to the gloriously romantic union of Siegfried and Brünnhilde that ends the work. One of my favourite sections is the confrontation between the young hero and the disguised Wotan (actually his grandfather) leading to the passing through fire to reach the peaceful mountaintop.
Being as far into the overall story as this, the opera does suffer from the repeated catch-ups referred to by my colleague Keith McDonnell in his survey of Das Rheingold. By this time, after some seven hours of music, the leitmotifs have had a chance to build up and there are some lengthy recaps. Most of the 25 minute section between The Wanderer (king of the gods Wotan in disguise) and Mime in Act I is recycled material and there are other moments like this further on (including Erda’s appearance at the beginning of Act III and to some extent the final duet).
There’s no shortage of opportunities to see or hear The Ring. It’s something that opera houses, from the big institutions to converted barns, are eager to include in their repertoire. Even at the moment, with access confined to digital means, there are quite a few streamed productions and concerts to enjoy (and maybe for many people there’s also the time for what amounts to a major commitment, with around 15 hours of music).
There are many recordings, some dating back to the mono era, too many to list in fact. I’ll always have a soft spot for the Solti cycle from the sixties and an even softer one for the Goodall live performances (Siegfried at least, if not the whole work). And that production, which ran and toured from the early 70s to the mid 80s, will always hold a special place in my affections as far as live performances are concerned.
It wasn’t perfectly staged but it was pretty good and most other attempts I’ve seen since have been found wanting. The televised Pierre Boulez / Patrice Chéreau production from Bayreuth in the seventies had much to recommend it. I liked some of the Keith Warner staging which has played at the Royal Opera House for some 15 years and I even liked some of Phyllida Lloyd’s loopy concept at ENO earlier this century.
In truth, all parts of the Ring Cycle are great, and I’m not sure Siegfried is even my favourite of the four, but it’s full of exciting and deeply moving music that means it’s a work I always come back to, whatever internal struggles it inspires.