Opera: Gotterdammerung – Richard Wagner

The awakening of Brunnhilde marks the commencement of ” Götterdämmerung ” or ” The Dusk of the Gods,” for from that moment the dusk of the gods begins to lower. All the threads of the great mythical fabric now are brought together to form a sublime and transcendent conclusion. There is no depressing anti-climax, for the greatest single act in all opera is the last of the trilogy.

CHARACTERS

Siegfried. Gunther. Hagen. Alberich. Brunnhilde. Gutrune. Waltraute. Woglinde, Weilgunde, Rhine Daughters. Flosshilde, Vassals, women.

The action opens on the Valkyrie’s rock, made familiar to us in the previous divisions of the music drama. The black of night, lighted only by the glow from the magic fire, serves for the setting of a scene weird in the extreme. Here about the great fir-tree sit the three Norns or goddesses of Fate, weaving the web of destiny.

As they weave, they sing of the rape of the Rhinegold, of Siegfried and his deeds and of the fiery doom which awaits Walhalla. Suddenly, the great cord of fate snaps under their fingers, and they vanish to join their mother Erda in her dank subterranean caverns.

When the day breaks, Siegfried and Brunnhilde emerge from their cave, the hero clad in shining armor, and his companion leading Grane, her horse, by the bridle. They take a loving farewell, exchanging vows of constancy, and Brunnhilde, no longer the stern martial Valkyrie, pleads with her hero not to forget her. Siegfried, as a pledge of his faith, gives her the magic ring. She gives him Grane and bravely sends him forth to fulfil his mission in the world, while she waits his return behind her wall of flame.

These two scenes have been but a prologue. When the curtain rises upon the first act, there is seen the hall of the Gibichungs on the Rhine. Here sits the mighty Rhenish chief, Gunther, his beautiful sister, Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen. Hagen is the son of Alberich the dwarf and therefore his nature is evil. He has been charged by his father to win back the Nibelung gold. As the three speak, the horn of Siegfried is heard and before he has crossed the threshold, his ruin has been planned. He lands from his boat at the door of the hall, is greeted with fair words of hospitality and Gutrune advances to offer him the drink of welcome, in which a potion of forgetfulness has been mixed. As he partakes of it, he murmurs

The goblet’s quaffed, With quenchless passion Brunnhilde, my bride, to thee.

But even as the sound of her names dies away, so does his remembrance of her and he gazes with swiftly kindled infatuation at the girl who stands before him with downcast eyes. Gunther speaks of Brunnhilde, whom he covets for his wife, and Siegfried offers to pass the magic barrier to win her for him if, in return, he may have Gutrune as bride. The compact is made and the two men swear blood-brotherhood.

Meanwhile, Brunnhilde, faithfully watching for her husband’s return, is sought by Waltraute, her sister Valkyrie, who comes to plead eloquently for the restoration of the ring of the Rhine Daughters. She has learned that by this means the gloom which weighs down Wotan in Walhalla may be lifted. Brunnhilde recoils with indignation from the suggestion of surrendering Siegfried’s love-token. It is to her

More than Walhalla’s rapture, More than the god’s renown.

In despair at the futility of her errand, Waltraute mounts her winged steed and flies away.

When evening has fallen, Brunnhilde listens with transport to the sound of Siegfried’s horn and runs to meet him. It is indeed Siegfried but in Gunther’s guise, for he has donned the Tarnhelm. The flames waver and yield as he boldly crosses their barrier. He announces to the terrified woman that she is to be his wife. With the strength the ring gives her, she repulses his rough wooing, until in the struggle he snatches the circlet from her finger. Then her power is gone and she is led to her chamber, where Siegfried, true to his oath to Gunther, lays his sword between himself and his blood-brother’s bride that is to be.

In the second act, Hagen, left alone to guard the ancestral home of the Gibichungs on the banks of the Rhine, is seen sleeping outside the castle in the moon-light. A creature of sinister aspect crouches before him with its hands upon its knees. It is his father Alberich, the dwarf, who has come to him in a dream to incite him to further efforts to regain the ring. Hagen freely gives the assurance

The ring I will ravish! Rest thou, nor rue, My soul swears it! Cease thou thy sorrow.

Alberich vanishes before the sun, and as its rays are mirrored in the Rhine, Siegfried appears to herald the coming of Gunther and Brunnhilde and to boast of his own prowess in winning the bride. He joyfully reminds Gutrune that she is pledged to wed. Then Hagen summons the vassals and tells them of their lord’s approaching marriage. This news they welcome with delight and begin to deck the altars for the ceremony. Soon Gunther leads in the pale and dejected Brunnhilde, who raises her eyes only when she hears Siegfried’s name. Dropping Gunther’s hand, she is about to rush impetuously into her husband’s arms but is repelled by the coldness of his glance, and the fact that Gutrune stands before him. She falters out an inquiry and Siegfried tells her that he is about to wed Gunther’s sister as Gunther is to wed her. She persistently denies her troth with Gunther and asks Siegfried pathetically whether he does not know her. Half fainting, she staggers against him and with a wave of his hand he gives her over indifferently to Gunther. Then Brunnhilde notices the flash of the ring, and demands in indignation how he dares wear a pledge which Gunther wrested from her hand. At mention of the ring, Hagen is on the alert. Siegfried denies that Gunther gave it to him, and declares that he took it from the dragon Fafner. Hagen hastens to get from Brunnhilde the assurance that Siegfried could have secured it only by trickery and deceit and this being precisely the admission that he wishes, he proposes that the traitor shall straightway pay for his villainy. The misunderstanding deepens, for Brunnhilde, referring to their first meeting declares that she has been as a wife to Siegfried, while he, forgetful of all save his second love, insists staunchly that he has dealt honestly with his blood-brother and has not laid hands upon the bride. Brunnhilde’s words half convince Gunther of Siegfried’s treachery, and he gives way to indignation and distrust.

Siegfried affectionately draws Gutrune from the circle and all the company disperse save Brunnhilde, Gunther and Hagen. Gunther sits apart brooding over his dishonor and shame and Brunnhilde gives way to a tempest of rage and grief. While in this mood, Hagen approaches her with proposals to slay the man who has betrayed her and she agrees, with the eagerness of desperation. Even Gunther gives his sanction to a crime which will make his sister a widow and the murder, which is to be explained as a hunting accident, is set for the next day in the forest.

The next day Siegfried appears on the banks of the Rhine in merry search of game which has escaped him. The three Rhine Daughters, whilom guardians of the magic treasure, appear on the surface of the stream and playfully promise to restore the quarry, if, in reward, the hunter will give them his ring. To tease them, he at first refuses, little though he values the trinket. Quickly they banish the smiles from their faces and predict that this very day he will die unless he intrusts it to their keeping. This threat defeats their purpose for Siegfried is not to be moved through fear. Putting the ring back on his finger, he declares that now he will keep it. The water-nymphs swim away with ominous words, while Siegfried smilingly philosophizes:

Alike on land and water Woman’s ways now I learn, And him who their smiles distrusts They’d frighten with their threats; And should they both be scorned, They bait him with bitter words.

His meditations are interrupted by the merry music of hunting-horns. He responds to the call and Gunther, Hagen and their vassals join him. The drinking-horns and the mead are brought forth and as the men rest and drink, Siegfried, to entertain the company, begins relating incidents of his youth. As he is speaking, Hagen slyly squeezes into his drinking-cup the juice of an herb, which undoes the work of the magic draught. As he reaches that part of his recountal where Brunnhilde awakens at his kiss, and is telling joyously of how he made her his bride, Gunther starts up with a cry of surprise and anger. Two ravens, Wotan’s messengers, fly across the scene and as Siegfried turns to see them Hagen smites him in the back with his spear. The hero falls dying and with his last breath murmurs the name of his beloved Brunnhilde. Hagen stalks moodily away and mournfully the vassals raise Siegfried’s body on his shield and to strains of funeral music carry it back to the castle.

Here Gutrune awaits her lord, anxious at his long absence. Fearing Brunnhilde, she has listened at her door, and found the apartment empty, for the unhappy woman is watching for Siegfried on the river bank. Preceded by Hagen, the corpse is brought into the hall and Gutrune giving herself up to measureless grief, refuses credence to the story that her husband was killed by a boar. Then Hagen boldly acknowledges his dark deed and as Gunther moves to take the ring from Siegfried’s finger, Hagen attacks him and kills him too. When he in turn snatches at the gold the dead man’s hand is threateningly raised and Hagen falls back in dismay.

Now Brunnhilde advances. She understands at last that Siegfried would have been true but for the draught of forgetfulness. Half pitying, she bids Gutrune remember that none but she was Siegfried’s lawful wife. Gutrune, filled with shame that she may not mourn over him who was another’s husband, creeps over to the dead body of her brother and remains weeping there.

After a long contemplation of Siegfried’s face, Brunnhilde gives command to the people to erect a funeral-pyre upon the river bank. As they engage in their gloomy task, she draws the ring from Siegfried’s finger and places it upon her own. The body is borne to the pyre and she herself flings the brand into the pile, while Wotan’s ravens circle above. Then leaping upon her horse, Grane, she rides with a bound into the fire. The flames tower high and threaten the hall but the swelling river rises mightily to quench them, and on the highest wave are seen .the Rhine Daughters. Hagen plunges into the flood to seize the gold he covets, but Woglinde and Wellgunde drag him beneath the water, while Flosshilde, who has recovered the ring from the ashes of Brunnhilde on the pyre, holds it triumphantly aloft. Now a ruddy glow illumines the heavens and Walhalla is seen burning in the sky, while Wotan and his gods and heroes sit calmly waiting their annihilation. It is the passing of the old order and the coming of the new, for the world has been redeemed front its curse by self-sacrificing human love.

Some of the noblest of Wagner’s music is contained in ” The Dusk of the Gods.” ” Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” an orchestral interlude between the prologue and Act I pictures the journey of the hero from the Valkyrie rock to the hall of the Gibichungs. The appeal of the Rhine Daughters to Siegfried is of supreme beauty, as is also the hero’s story of his adventures, in which recur all the motives of the ” Siegfried ” division of the trilogy, i. e., the sword melody, the storm, the notes of the wood-bird, Mimi’s blandishments, the rustle and snap of flames and the triumph of Brunnhilde’s awakening. The magnificent funeral march telling in motives the story of Siegfried’s life and forming the most impressive orchestral lament ever penned and the superb closing scene of Brunnhilde’s immolation are among the mighty moments in this mightiest of music-drama creations.