Wagner Goes West

Der Ring des Nibelungen

by Richard Wagner. produced by the San Francisco Opera, June 1985

Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung

by Nicholas John
Riverrun Press, no. 31, 128 pp., $5.95 each volume (paper)

   Accursed Hagen,
for you counselled me on the venom
which bewitched him from his wife! Ah sorrow!
Suddenly I understand—
Brünnhilde was the true love
whom through the drink he forgot!

Gutrune, before she sings these lines near the end of the Ring, has waited in trepidation for Siegfried’s return. She screamed and swooned when Hagen brought in Siegfried’s corpse, and lamented while Gunther tried to comfort her. She confronts Brünnhilde, only to learn that the husband she is lamenting was a bigamist. Now, in her final words Gutrune blames Hagen, but she also blames herself. If she only had a little more time, understood a little more, she would take responsibility for the murder as well as the magic potion that caused Siegfried to fall in love with her and forget Brünnhilde entirely.

What makes us read so much into these few lines? Gutrune sings for the first time against (i.e., comprehends) that weirdest of all Ring motifs, the alternating chords of Das Rheingold‘s Magic Helm, which are transformed in Götterdämmerung so as to indicate the deception engendered by the magic potion. Then Gutrune’s own weak, pretty motif is painfully bent, forced together with the Magic Deception chords, and finally liquidated into the motif of Destiny. It is a perfect little example of Wagner’s virtuosity at manipulating his motifs in the service of the precise and moving depiction of human feeling.

This speech of Gutrune’s he set in place with the greatest craft. The next speaker, Brünnhilde, also suddenly understands—and in ways that count to Wagner, she understands a great deal more than Gutrune; “Alles, alles, alles weiss ich,” Brünnhilde sings in one of her greatest (and lowest) lines of the entire drama. On the basis of this higher understanding, Wagner contrasts her superhuman, urhuman, or inhuman response to the death of Siegfried with the all-too-human response of Gutrune. From the start of Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, it is clear that there will be nothing here for tears.

First she orders the vassals to build the funeral pyre—a fine imaginative example of Wagner’s notorious literal-mindedness: for whereas earlier in Götterdämmerung we have twice heard of the felled World Ash piled up in logs in Valhalla, waiting for the end, only now do we see them echoed in the equally doomed Gibichung’s hall. A staggeringly beautiful, drawn-out modulation changes Brünnhilde’s mood from the hortatory to the elegiac. The modulation prepares a simple but very persuasive passage built out of her and Siegfried’s love music.

Less persuasive, however, is Brünnhilde’s rhetoric in this passage. Many strands from earlier in the Ring are obsessively pulled together in the Immolation Scene, but one that is not is Brünnhilde’s action in securing Siegfried’s murder by Hagen—a violent enough action that is vividly in our minds from the last time we have seen and heard her on the stage. Brünnhilde never refers to it, dilating instead on the …

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