Siegfried's death explored and glorified

The Death and Heroism of Siegfried


In his thin and challenging book, The Trouble with Wagner, Prof. Michael Steinberg of Brown University shares a dramaturge’s perspective on the Ring Cycle — both from his academic scrutiny and from the experience of acting in the position of dramaturge in the production of the work recently staged at La Scala and Berlin State Opera and directed by Guy Cassiers. 

The Trouble with Wagner

Much of the study has to do with pointing out inconsistencies or narrative problems in the text, and addressing them rather than smoothing them over.  One particularly provocative analysis has to do with Act III of Gotterdammerung, and what Steinberg terms Siegfried’s “awakening” from the effects of the potion that had temporarily erased his erotic bond to Brunnhilde and replaced it with a false infatuation with Gutrune.

The question posed is “What does Siegfried know and remember through his period of non-knowing and non-memory?”  Putting a point on it, Steinberg notes that, though still under the effects of the “forgetfulness” potion, Siegfried can easily and entertainingly narrate his childhood with Mime, his battle with the dragon, his conversations with the Woodbird, and his obtaining the hoard including the Tarnhelm and the ring.

At this point his is given the counter-potion, and with seeming ease continues to narrate what those around him never knew, and what he himself only now comprehends – that the Woodbird told him about Brunnhilde’s entrapment on the fiery mountain; that he braved the flames; that he woke Brunnhilde; that they pledged eternal devotion to each other; and that they became lovers as well as world-defying progenitors of a godless future.

Realizing anew that this had happened, Siegfried must simultaneously realize that he had been betrayed into forgetting his promises to her – that he had become the victim of a lawless conspiracy to dupe him into adultery – that he, the true lover, had become the false liar.  It is at that moment that he is murdered. 

Writes Steinberg:

Siegfried’s recollection of his bond with Brunnhilde, together with his simultaneous realization of his betrayal of her, must, in my own view, be even more catastrophic than his death itself. … Siegfried’s overwhelming revelation must take over his mind and body to the relative devaluation of his own murder.  This is part of the shock of the moment, as experienced also by Gunther and the huntsmen. … The horror of Siegfried’s death is that it comes at the very moment when he might have become a hero, a capacity based on his knowledge of the world, himself, and their histories.  

This analysis sheds welcome light on the entire work.  As attending audience members, we have portrayed in front of us the moment of truth that all classic heroes must experience – the moment Oedipus realizes that he killed his father and slept with his mother; the moment Hamlet realizes the point of the sword has been poisoned and that he has no time left to avenge his murdered father; the moment Willy Loman realizes that his son loves him.  And it is at precisely that critical moment of self-knowledge that Siegfried is robbed of the opportunity for the redeeming heroic gesture.  And what is his response to this multi-layered tragedy?  His dying words are not “I could have been a contender,” or “Hagen you lying asshole” or “I have been grievously wronged and someone’s gotta pay.”  Instead, they are entirely in keeping with the core of Siegfried’s heroic stature in the first place – his anarchic, exclusive, erotic promise of fidelity to Brunnhilde.  He says, in effect “Brunnhilde, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

This final peroration bearing so much weight, the funeral march thus becomes not just memories of a flawed lover, but the apotheosis of the hero.  And Brunnhilde’s course of action – as Steinberg speculates, having been counselled by the Rheinmaidens perhaps simultaneously with Siegfried’s murder – becomes all the more necessary, all the more purgative and preternaturally calm, ordained as it is by revelation of deceit and affirmance of Siegfried’s true heroic stature.

How could all of this be captured by an actor at the very moment of realization, in performance?  The score gives the actor precious little time to express his understanding that he has been tricked, before he is abruptly murdered.  Steinberg suggests that silence is the most eloquent tool – that the actor playing Siegfried understands his predicament so well that he experiences Hagen’s spear as inevitable rather than unexpected.

However expressed, I look forward to the next opportunity to witness it – perhaps in April 2020 in Chicago!


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The Wagner Blog

The Wagner Blog

The Wagner Blog is a forum for discussion of contemporary themes arising from the works of Richard Wagner. Discussions relating to Wagner’s musical, literary, theatrical, philosophical, political and theoretic work are all appropriate for this forum.

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