With Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) we come to the end of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle. Before these last few weeks I had heard it just once before, and, as it turns out, I had forgotten most of it.
It is in some ways a difficult work to penetrate. It introduces a raft of completely new characters, which is rarely a good idea when one is nearing the end of a story. (I do understand that Wagner was working with pre-existing material and faced certain constraints in consequence, but he still bears responsibility for his choices of pre-existing material.) The music, too, fits somewhat uncomfortably with the other panels of the Ring, for the leitmotif-saturated prosody of the previous works is displaced by much more conventional operaticisms: heroic duets, high Cs, massive choruses, and so on. I read somewhere that Wagner “Lohengrinized” this opera, and I can see the truth of it. I am not averse to operaticisms, and in fact prefer them to Wagner’s usual manner of song, but I still found the contrast jarring. It almost feels as though Wagner had a failure of nerve or of artistic vision, just as his magnum opus was almost complete, and that is rather sad.
Part of the explanation is perhaps historical. The text of Götterdämmerung was the first Ring text that Wagner wrote, and it was originally intended to be a stand-alone work. I suppose he wrote in the choruses and the duets at that time. Only later did he go back and write the other parts of the Ring to fill in the background. Once the texts were finished he began writing the music, but by the time he got to the music for Götterdämmerung, about twenty-five years had elapsed from the time he wrote the text, and maybe it seemed like too much work to revise it to be more congruent with the other parts of the cycle.
Two characters from the earlier parts of the Ring reappear in this opera: Siegfried and Brünnhilde. (The Nibelung dwarf Alberich, whom we have not seen since Das Rheingold, also makes a brief appearance at the beginning of Act 2.) At the end of Siegfried, the titular hero had clambered onto the fiery rock where Brünnhilde was sleeping and rescued her. Here, at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, she is, for some reason, still there, twiddling her thumbs while Siegfried roams the country-side seeking adventures. He stumbles into the company of the Gibichungs, who hatch a plot against him to steal the Ring. The plot involves a magic love potion that makes Siegfried forget all about Brünnhilde. In the course of time one of the Gibichungs, Hagen (the son, it turns out, of Alberich), kills Siegfried with a spear in the back. At the very end, Brünnhilde arrives, takes the Ring and throws it back into the Rhine where it is received by the Rhine maidens from whence it came. She then throws herself onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre.
The most famous parts of Götterdämmerung are probably the orchestral interludes — one depicting Siegfried’s journey up the Rhine, and another to accompany his funeral — and Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene”, in which she throws herself into the fire as the opera comes crashing to an end. These are indeed great moments in an opera that is, at times, not all that exciting, so we’ll sample two of the three.
First is Siegfried’s death and funeral. As this clip begins, Siegfried has been stabbed in the back and lies dying, but he manfully rouses himself to deliver one last song, singing of the eyes and sweet breath of Brünnhilde, before he goes the way of all flesh. When he dies the Gibichung men gather around and carry him away in a funeral procession, and the music which Wagner provides is wonderfully atmospheric. My Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book calls it “the supreme musico-dramatic climax of all that Wagner wrought”, which is high praise indeed — especially from Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book. The music is woven from many leitmotifs that relate to Siegfried’s life: the motives of the Wälsungs (his parents), of Heroism, of Sympathy, of Love, of the Sword, and of Siegfried himself. Dominating them all is the ominous motive of Death. Siegfried Jerusalem sings Siegfried and James Levine leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra:
Soon Brünnhilde appears. She takes the Ring from Siegfried and returns it to the Rhine maidens, thereby restoring the order that was disrupted by the theft of the gold at the beginning of Das Rheingold. She then sets Siegfried’s funeral pyre alight and, calling for her trusty steed (who does not arrive in either of the two productions that I have seen), she rides into, or runs into, the flames herself. Hagen makes one last attempt to steal the Ring from the Rhine maidens, but he is drowned. The music ends on a majestic, soaring melody: the motive of Redemption.
This clip shows the end of Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene”; she throws herself into the flames at about the 2 minute mark. In this production, from Bayreuth in the 1990s, the ensuing scene of Hagen and the Rhine maidens is bizarre enough to be corny, but it is at least intelligible, which is more than can be said for the staging of the very end of the opera. Honestly, some of these modern stage directors ought to be themselves drowned in the Rhine. Anyway, I believe that it is Waltraud Meier singing Brünnhilde, and Daniel Barenboim leads the orchestra.
Now that I have reached the end of the Ring cycle, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on it. What on earth is going on here? To the end of Siegfried, I though that the cycle was going to be a paean to modernity, which overthrew the gods and established in its place the putative heroism of man and the purity of love. Siegfried himself was the poster boy for this exalted new reality. But in Götterdämmerung Siegfried is a shadow of his former self: he spends most of the opera under the spell of a magic potion that makes him, in effect, an entirely different character, and then at the end he is suddenly and un-heroically killed. Why is Wagner killing his poster boy? Even Brünnhilde, perhaps the noblest of Wagner’s characters, dies at the end, and by suicide. Perhaps we are meant to celebrate her love, which leads her to sacrifice herself in order to . . . what? I cannot see any point to her death. So I am befuddled.
I know that some people object to Wagner, and especially to the Ring, because of his, and reportedly its, anti-Semitism. I know that Wagner was a devout anti-Semite, but I honestly do not know where I am supposed to see anti-Semitism in the Ring. So I am doubly befuddled.
Of the four parts of the Ring cycle, my favourite was Die Walküre, followed by Siegfried, then Das Rheingold, and finally Götterdämmerung. Musically I found Das Rheingold the least attractive — too harsh and dark — but at least I was able, I thought, to understand roughly what was happening and why, which was not the case with Götterdämmerung. In the course of listening, I grew to admire Wagner’s sophisticated use of leitmotifs; there is always the potential that these “musical calling cards” could become a bit trite and artificial, but in his hands I found them quite fascinating and effective at adding depth to the drama. Viewing all four Ring operas in a row — over the course of about eight weeks — was exhausting; I cannot imagine doing all four in four nights, as Wagner intended. I might climb onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre myself. But in the end I enjoyed them, more or less, and I hope I live long enough to hear them again one day.