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The StoryWagner originally conceived of an opera to be called Siegfried's Death. He began work on the project around 1850. As he worked on the poem, he expanded it to include a "prequel" to be called The Young Siegfried. Eventually even that wouldn't hold his story, and it ended up in its present form of 3 operas plus an introduction. He worked on the cycle over several decades. After finishing up through Act II of Siegfried, he put the project aside from 1858 until about 1870, during which time he wrote both Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. The complete cycle was finished in 1874.
The story comes, in a very general way, from the old Norse/Germanic legend of the Nibelungenlied ("The Song of the Dwarves"). I once tried to read a translation of the Nibelungenlied,but it had so little to do with Wagner's epic that I lost interest. Wagner had his own interests, and he wanted to invoke his ancestral legends and put them to use to say what he wanted to say, and what was on his mind was the relationship between love and earthly power, and themes of yearning and loss.
Like J. R. R. Tolkien, Wagner had an instinct for mythic storytelling, and so his very much invented story feels like something far older than it is. Neither Wagner nor Tolkien knew of Joseph Campbell, of course, but both their stories contain many of the same classic elements of the Hero Myth:
Das RheingoldThe story begins in the depths of the Rhine river, where the three Rhinemaidens (think "mermaids") are playing in a state of primal state-of-nature innocence. Enter Alberich the Nibelung (dwarf) from a fissure beneath the earth, who spies the three and lusts after them. The Rhinemaidens taunt him and humiliate him for his ugliness and awkwardness. In his rage at being rejected, Alberich steals the Rhinegold from them, having learned that he who is willing to renounce love will thereby gain the ability to forge a ring of power from the gold. The maidens had assumed that no one in his right mind would make such a renunciation, but Alberich is enraged and wants revenge. He disappears with the gold, leaving the bereft maidens to sing a song of loss and grief that will reappear all through the four operas. Alberich forges the ring and makes himself lord over all the Nibelungen.
Meanwhile, Wotan wants a grand castle for the gods to live in as a testament to his greatness. He has contracted with the two giants Fasolt and Fafner to build him the castle. On the advice of the wily Loge, god of fire, Wotan has promised the Giants Freia, goddess of youth and beauty, in return for the building; Loge has assured Wotan that he will find him a way out of the deal. Fasolt and Fafner, having finished the castle, come for their payment. Wotan is stuck; since all his power rests on the treaties inscribed into his spear, he cannot renege on the deal, and the giants make off with the terrified Freia.
Loge, having learned of Alberich's ring, suggests to Wotan that they steal it from Alberich and offer it to the giants as a substitute payment. Wotan agrees, though he secretly plans to keep the ring for himself. The two go down into the earth to Nibelheim where the dwarves live. There Alberich has enslaved the dwarves and forced them to mine him an enormous pile of gold. Wotan and Loge succeed in kidnapping Alberich and take him back to the gods' abode on the mountain top. There they relieve Alberich of the hoard and of the ring. Alberich is as shattered by the loss of his ring as Gollum ever thought of being. He places on the ring a terrible curse, bringing endless misery to all who possess or seek it.
Wotan and Loge offer the giants Alberich's hoard of gold in return for Freia. Fafner accepts, though Fasolt has by now become rather sweet on Freia and wants to keep her. The hoard is piled up, but Fafner wants one last thing: Alberich's ring, now on Wotan's finger. Wotan refuses, the giants threaten to call off the deal and leave with Freia, and in the middle of the hubbub there appears out of the ground Erda ("earth"), goddess of the earth and the world's wisest woman. She warns Wotan to flee the ring's curse, foretells that a death-laden day is coming for the gods, and disappears. Wotan relents and gives the ring to the giants, who immediately fall to arguing about the division of the spoils. Fafner kills Fasolt on the spot, and goes off with the loot.
The problem resolved for the time being, Wotan and the rest of the gods prepare to enter into the new castle, which Wotan dubs "Walhall"--literally, the "hall of the fallen heroes." Fricka, his wife, asks him the meaning of the name, and Wotan says, "If what I'm planning works out, its meaning will become clear to you." The gods enter Valhalla, as the Rhinemaidens sing a mournful song of loss.
Between the two operasWhat Wotan is planning, which doesn't become apparent until the next opera, is this, and it forms the driving notion of the entire plot:
Because of his dependence on treaties, Wotan cannot himself take the ring back from Fafner; but if he can create a hero who is not dependent on him, who is not acting as Wotan's agent, that hero could slay Fafner and win the ring back for him. Wotan, always a great womanizer, descends to earth in human guise as "Wälse" and sires a pair of twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, on an earthly mother. He then abandons them to their fate, and starts paying visits to Erda the earth goddess. Erda bears him eight immortal daughters--the Valkyries (Walküre: "bearer of the fallen heroes"). Bearing in mind Erda's prediction of a final Armageddon of the Gods, Wotan instructs the Valkyries to roam the earth, inciting men to make war on each other so as to find the most valiant warriors, and when they fall in battle to carry them to Valhalla to abide with the Gods and (by the way) defend Valhalla in its eventual apocalyptic battle against Alberich's army.
(The Valkyries are female, but they are warlike females. Not only that, Brünnhilde has to have a voice capable of outshouting a full Wagnerian orchestra for 4-plus hours. Hence the cliche of the massive armor-girt soprano with breastplates and horns.)
Die WalküreA dark and stormy night (yes). Siegmund ("victorious") arrives exhausted and weaponless at the home of Hunding (literally, "son of a bitch"), where he is tended by Sieglinde, Hunding's wife. (Hunding is a great character--a big, hulking brute whose entire life revolves around notions of kinship and warrior's honor.) Hunding recognizes Siegmund as his tribe's enemy, and tells him he can spend the night there, but Hunding intends to kill him in the morning. Left alone, Siegmund ruminates on his father Wälse, and his promise that Siegmund would find a magic sword in his hour of need. Sure enough, the sword is stuck in the ash tree that grows through Hunding's house; it has been there for years, and no one has been able to draw it forth. Sieglinde appears, and the two recognize both their kinship and their love for each other. Siegmund draws the sword, and he and Sieglinde run off together into the night.
Back in Valhalla, Wotan's wife Fricka is furious. She is the goddess of hearth and family, and here is Sieglinde renouncing her marriage vows and running off with her own twin brother. She demands to Wotan that Siegmund must die in the coming fight. Wotan explains that Siegmund is his only hope for a hero that will reclaim the ring for him. Fricka points out that, by giving Siegmund his sword, Wotan has taken away any claim Siegmund might have had to being a free agent, and therefore can't win the ring anyway. Wotan is trapped, and sadly agrees to Siegmund's death. He tells Brünnhilde to give the victory to Hunding. Brünnhilde is shocked that Wotan would turn against his cherished son, whom she too has loved from afar, but Wotan is firm and angrily orders Brünnhilde to do his bidding.
Brünnhilde confronts Siegmund while Sieglinde lies asleep in exhaustion, and tells him he is about to die and be taken to Valhalla. Siegmund asks about Valhalla, and Brünnhilde describes it in glowing terms. Finally, Siegmund asks if Sieglinde will be there with him; Brünnhilde says no. Siegmund says, "So greet for me Wotan and all the fallen heroes, for I will abide here."
Torn by grief and moved by Siegmund's courage, Brünnhilde rebels against Wotan's will and assures Siegmund that she will protect him. At the moment of battle, Wotan appears and shatters the magic sword with his spear. Siegmund is killed. Brünnhilde gathers up Sieglinde and the shards of the sword, mounts her horse and flees.
Act III opens with the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" as all eight gather on a mountain top with their load of fallen heroes preparatory to taking them to Valhalla. Brünnhilde appears with Sieglinde, in terror of the coming wrath of Wotan. To protect Sieglinde she sends her off with the shards of the sword to hide in the forest, telling her that she carries Siegmund's child. Wotan appears, threatening thundering destruction to all who shield Brünnhilde, and the Valkyries flee in terror. In punishment for her disobedience, Wotan condemns her to sleep on a rock on a mountain top, to become the mortal bride of whatever man awakens her. As a consolation, he agrees to surround the rock with terrifying fire, so that only a man who knows no fear can reach her.
Wotan has thus in short order been forced to renounce his two most beloved children--Siegmund and Brünnhilde. He is by now a very different person than the vigorous, ambitious God we first met. He knows now that he will from this point on be alone, and that he is powerless to keep Erda's predictions from coming true. From now on he is a spectator in the story's action.
SiegfriedIn the forest, Sieglinde has been taken in by Mime the Nibelung, brother of Alberich. He knows the whole story and is only helping her in hopes of using the hero she is to bear to get the ring for himself. Sieglinde dies in childbirth, and Mime raises Siegfried to young manhood. Siegfried is a child of nature, totally uneducated and not even very bright, but strong and--literally--fearless. He reforges his father's sword, and Mime takes him to Fafner to teach him about fear. Fafner has used the ring to turn himself into a dragon, where he sits in a cave and guards the Nibelung hoard. Mime brews up a cup of poison, which he plans to give to Siegfried as soon as he has slain Fafner. Siegfried kills Fafner (quite pitilessly; Fafner is not looking for trouble). Tasting of Fafner's blood, Siegfried finds he can understand the language of the birds, who tell him of the hoard and the ring and of Mime's treachery. Siegfried kills Mime. The birds then tell him of the woman lying asleep on a rock, and Siegfried sets off to find her.
On the way, Siegfried comes across Wotan, now in the guise of a Wanderer. Wotan tries to bar Siegfried's way. Siegfried, in a reversal of the action in Die Walküre, breaks Wotan's spear with his sword. Wotan's power is broken, and he slinks off, not to be seen again in the opera cycle. Siegfried climbs the mountain, strides through the magic fire, and awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde.
(A note on Siegfried: He is a most unlikable character--arrogant, conscienceless, more than a little stupid, quite happy to slaughter people for the slightest of reasons, easily manipulated by other characters. My biggest problem with this story is that I simply can't fathom what Brünnhilde sees in the big lunk. He behaves so abominably that when he dies one is almost relieved.)
Götterdammerung ("Twilight of the Gods")Siegfried takes his leave of Brünnhilde to seek adventure and heroic deeds. His travels down from the mountain top are described in the orchestral passage called "Siegfried's Rhine Journey." He ends up in the kingdom of the Gibichungs along the Rhine. The Gibichungs are a gloomy and none too bright bunch, where king Gunther is advised and controlled by Hagen, Alberich's son by a human woman. They hail Siegfried as a great hero, and Siegfried in his naiveté swears blood-brotherhood with Gunther. Hagen slips Siegfried a potion that makes him forget Brünnhilde and fall in love with Gutrune, Gunther's sister. Siegfried proposes to Gutrune and then, when told about Brünnhilde on her rock, agrees to capture her to be Gunther's wife.
As Brünnhilde sits on her rock, she is visited by one of the other Valkyries. It seems that Wotan came home one day from his travels with his spear in two pieces. He instructed that kindling be piled all around Valhalla, and sent two ravens out into the world as messengers. Since then he sits, the fallen heroes ranged around him in the great hall, waiting for the ravens to return and signal the end of the Gods. She asks Brünnhilde to help, but Brünnhilde says she is now a mortal woman with the love of a mortal man and is no longer concerned with the fate of the Gods. After the Valkyrie leaves, Siegfried shows up disguised as Gunther and carries Brünnhilde most unwillingly off to the Gibichungs. The double wedding is planned amidst great merriment.
Hagen's plan is to kill Siegfried on a hunting trip and claim the ring. While on the hunting trip, Siegfried passes by the Rhine and encounters the three Rhinemaidens, who chide him as the foolish child he is, and warn him that his life is in danger. Siegfried, ever confident, laughs at their warning, and Hagen duly slays him with a spear in the back. There follows the other great orchestral passage of this opera, "Siegfried's Funeral March."
Back at the Gibichungs there is much acrimony, as Gutrune has been done out of a husband and Gunther out of a blood-brother. Hagen claims the ring on Siegfried's dead hand and moves to take it. At that moment Brünnhilde appears. This is the "Immolation Scene," the longest single aria in the operatic literature. Brünnhilde orders Siegfried's body placed on a funeral pyre. She takes the ring from his finger in preparation to giving it back to the Rhine and thus cleansing the earth of the curse at last. The funeral pyre is lit, and Brünnhilde rides onto it on her horse. The fire consumes all, and the Rhine rises to flood the room. Hagen cries, "The ring is mine!" but is dragged to his death by the Rhinemaidens, who reclaim their gold at last. In the distance, Valhalla can be seen to be burning. The orchestra in these last moments plays a wonderful melange of the motives Valhalla, Magic Fire, and Redemption By Love, as the curtain falls.