Within Wagner’s famed tetralogy, the third installment, “Siegfried,” might be the least popular or well-known. But there is no doubt that it is as crucial as any and might actually be the one most important in establishing dramatic balance across the four works.
Among its major dramatic tasks is establishing the “Ring Cycle’s” major hero and bridging the musico-dramatic gap that Wagner left behind for a decade-long between the completion of “Die Walküre” and this one. The composer actually wrote this libretto second (he wrote them in reverse order for “Der Ring des Nibelungen”) and stopped composition in 1857, leaving the titular character stranded in the second act. He would return to complete the third act in 1869, the world premiere coming on August 16, 1876.
Short Plot Summary
The opera opens with the dwarf Mime laying out his plan to use Siegfried to steal back the gold from the dragon Fafner. But he needs a sword and Siegfried, who he raised has destroyed every sword given to him. Siegfried returns from the forest with a bear and breaks another sword. He demands to know of his parentage, and Mime obliges, also handing him the broken pieces of the sword Nothung. Siegfried orders Mime to reforge the sword but fails.
Wotan arrives in the guise of a Wanderer and is challenged by Mime to a game of riddles, with his own head the bounty. Wotan answers the three riddles correctly (which essentially recap the first two operas of the cycle) and then challenges Mime to three more with the same price. Mime fails on the third which demands him to name the person that can fix the sword. Wotan spares Mime, leaving his head to the one who can reforge the sword and “knows no fear.”
Siegfried returns and Mime realizes that he must teach Siegfried fear. But he fails and Siegfried ultimately reforges the sword and heads off to kill Fafner.
Siegfried does kill the dragon and then eventually murders Mime when the latter tries to poison him (there is also a meeting between Mime and Alberich in between). Siegfried walks away with the Ring and Tarnhelm all while listening to a bird’s song that guides him toward a woman sleeping on a mountain.
On his way, he encounters Wotan and destroys his grandfather’s spear. He arrives on the rock, awakens Brünhilde, and the two sing of their love.
Famous Music Numbers
There are far fewer recognizable pieces in this opera when compared to the other three operas, but “Siegfried” still boasts some great moments. One of the most famous is “Siegfried’s” forging song, a solo number that immediately shows us that Wagner was not in the mood for taking it easy on his lead tenor.
Other famous moments are the wood bird’s brief passage, and most notably, the final love duet between Siegfried and Brünhilde.
There have been a number of famed interpreters of the lead role, considered by many to be the hardest ever written due mainly to its sheer length. The opera, which clocks in well over three hours of music, requires that the tenor be present for at least 2/3 of it. And Wagner never relents.
Famous Siegfried interpreters include Wolfgang Windgassen (who has at least seven recordings of the opera), Lauritz Melchior, René Kollo and Siegfried Jerusalem.
Watch and Listening
While we would love to continue the Chéreau cycle in this feature, we could not find “Siegfried” online. So we will include the Siegfried by Wolfgang Sawallisch, which stars René Kollo.