With the Ring’s last two operas we come, paradoxically, to the first librettos written, as Siegfried’s Death (1848) and Young Siegfried (1851). As the names suggest, they were originally simpler stories, centred on the life of the legendary Germanic hero, without the vast mythological and philosophical backdrop shaped in Die Walküre and Das Rhinegold.
Siegfried has been called the scherzo of the Ring cycle, because of the burgeoning youth that pervades the score. Act I is dominated by the exciting rhythms of hammer, bellows and blazing forge, as Siegfried reforges his father’s sword. The great forest of Act II mingles the haunted gloom of Weber’s Freischütz with the sunlight and bird calls of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and in Act III Siegfried makes an epic passage through storm and fire on the mountainside to Brünnhilde’s idyllic pastures.
The scoring flows with such energy and complexity it’s surprising to find it wasn’t composed in one go. Wagner reached a creative crisis at the end of Act II, and, as he said, ‘left Siegfried sitting under a lime tree’ from August 1857… until March 1869, during which time he composed Tristan and Die Meistersinger and went from penniless refugee to acknowledged master. He had also become not only a widower, Minna having died in 1866 (Wagner didn’t attend the funeral), but also a father of two children with the still-married Cosima van Bülow (below), an affair that scandalised Munich society.
In Siegfried, the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wagner created a much misunderstood hero; some producers even make him a Hitler Youth-style bullyboy. They haven’t read the libretto closely enough. Raised as a mere weapon by the dwarf Mime, Siegfried becomes a loveless, bitterly lonely and frustrated young man, sharp-tongued and impatient, but far less violent than he threatens to be. When mortally provoked, by Mime and the Dragon, Siegfried strikes back only when he must, and takes no great delight in killing, becoming gravely reflective. By himself, we see Siegfried as good-humoured, nature-loving and
When it comes to Mime, meanwhile, some claim that Wagner intended some element of Jewish caricature here, but there’s no explicit evidence, and Mime stands as a character without it. He’s a master craftsman, but also a megalomaniac, as bad as Alberich but smaller-minded, a paranoid writhing with plots and hatreds, a pathological liar and conscienceless poisoner. Only really bad producers make him cute…
Michael Scott Rohan