The Sins of the Father

As the Met offers the latest installment in its new Ring cycle, MATTHEW GUREWITSCH looks at three generations of Wälsung family gods and men — Wotan, Siegmund and Siegfried.

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Jay Hunter Morris as young Siegfried at San Francisco Opera, 2011
© Cory Weaver 2011
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Bryn Terfel as Wotan in the Met's 2011 Die Walküre
© Beth Bergman 2011
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Plácido Domingo at La Scala as Siegmund, one of his favorite roles
© Lelli & Masotti/Teatro alla Scala 2011

Before Wotan's eyes — the one that sees and the one that does not — the cosmos hurtles toward destruction. Only a free man can lift the curse, or so Wotan believes. He pins his hopes first on his son Siegmund, then on Siegmund's posthumous son Siegfried, heroes shaped by nature and by nurture into virtual opposites. 

Vocally, the Wälsungs, father and son — so named after Wälse, the founder of their brief line, in reality Wotan in earthly guise — belong to the weight class of the heldentenor, as spelled out in the definition of Grove Music Online: "a dramatic tenor voice of clarion timbre and unusual endurance, closely tied to such Wagnerian tenor roles as Tannhäuser, Tristan, Siegmund and Siegfried." As the Grove authors hasten to add, Wagner did not use the term. Still, it comes in handy. Extensively recorded avatars such as Lauritz Melchior, Max Lorenz, Wolfgang Windgassen and Siegfried Jerusalem shuttled freely among Siegmund, the "young" Siegfried of Siegfried and the Siegfried (sans modifier) of Götterdämmerung. Heinrich Vogl, the electrifying Loge of Das Rheingold in the first Bayreuth Ring, seems to have done them one better, occasionally performing Loge, Siegmund and both parts of Siegfried, on four consecutive nights, supposedly without apparent strain.

But in truth, the challenges of Siegmund and Siegfried are not at all alike. Siegmund's comparatively short tour of duty plays out within the first two of the three acts of Die Walküre, and his music lies low enough to suit baritones in transition to tenor territory. Siegfried, pitched up a notch or two, is the heldentenor marathon par excellence, spread over the entire canvas of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, demanding stamina and ringing tone in spades, not only because the role is so long but because the swells in the orchestra are at times so overpowering. 

By most reckonings, the demands of young Siegfried in particular are quite simply superhuman. Not according to James Levine, however, who has lately suggested that the terrors of the part are wildly exaggerated. It's a long sing — but the character's ebullience and self-confidence put wind in a singer's sails, Levine said, whereas Siegmund is a marked man from the beginning, bearing spiritual burdens that weigh mightily on the voice.

So is Siegmund a harder role than young Siegfried? Plácido Domingo, who for many years made a specialty of Die Walküre on major stages everywhere but never tackled more than excerpts of Siegfried or Götterdämmerung — and then only in the recording studio — seems not to think so. "Suffering onstage is what I love to do most," he once told me. Hence his fondness for Siegmund, which he cited with Verdi's Don Alvaro, in La Forza del Destino, as one of his two favorite roles — because both characters suffer nonstop. 

A Siegmund who wants to make a point of his heldentenor credentials has two treacherous bars in his great Act I soliloquy in which to do so. His father promised that a sword would be at hand in his hour of greatest need, Siegmund reminds us. Now the hour has come, but where is the sword? In desperation, he calls out his father's name: "Wälse! Wälse!"

The meter is common time, the tempo "mässig langsam," or moderately slow, the dynamic for voice and orchestra alike fortissimo, a rarer marking in Wagner's practice than his reputation would suggest. The first time around, the first syllable of "Wälse" is set as a half note on the tenor's upper G-flat, the second syllable as a quarter note an octave lower, with a quarter rest to fill out the bar. The second cry is set the same way, but the pitches are a half-step higher, on G-natural.

These are not high notes by any stretch of the imagination, nor does the orchestral part — all strings tremolando — present the stiffest of competition. But a fermata hanging over the long note of each bar issues the singer an open invitation to hold on as long as he thinks he can or must (conceivably in defiance of the conductor, who has no way to stop him).

A YouTube compilation of live clips shows how thirteen prominent Siegmunds have chosen to play this moment, from Lauritz Melchior in 1940 to Robert Dean Smith in 2001. The matchless Melchior, who reportedly chalked up a phenomenal 181 performances in the role (plus 223 as Tristan, 144 as Tannhäuser, 121 as young Siegfried, 107 in Götterdämmerung, 106 as Lohengrin and 80 as Parsifal) clocks in at approximately 16 and 12 seconds on the two long notes, timing that is hors concours. Smith is the runner up, with a staggering 8 and 13 seconds. Lorenz is in the lineup, too, at 6 and 6, along with Set Svanholm (7/7), Ramón Vinay (6/5), Windgassen (4/4), Mario del Monaco (4/6), Jon Vickers (8/8), James King (6/7), Jess Thomas (6/8), Jerusalem (5/6) and Domingo (5/11). Under the fleet baton of Pierre Boulez, it is the lightweight Peter Hofmann who sets the speed record (3/3), pretty much in tempo, which is to my mind much the most eloquent solution. But what the sampler cannot show is how this moment can distort an entire performance. Woe betide the fool who hazards his all on this climax, saving before and spent after, with miles to go before he sleeps. It happens a lot. 

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Lance Ryan as the Götterdämmerung Siegfried in Strasbourg last season
© Alain Kaiser 2011

For obvious reasons, Siegmund and Siegfried never appear onstage together, but then, Wagnerian fathers and sons seldom do. In Götterdämmerung, Alberich haunts the somnolent Hagen, his tardy and self-serving avenger. In Parsifal, the wasting Titurel calls literally from the crypt, if we are to take him at his word, demanding from Amfortas the sacrament of the grail, which Amfortas in his state of sin experiences as sheer torture. 

Other than that, we know that the holy fool Parsifal is the son of a father who sowed his seed and died, a fate he shares not only with the soul-shattered Tristan but with the bright-eyed Siegfried. Siegmund narrates hair-raising adventures with Wälse, who taught him to defy repressive law and custom by force of arms. How strange to think that Siegmund, who has known humankind and craves human contact, has been trained up as an outcast and a lone wolf, his only comfort subliminal memories of the Valhalla motif. Whereas young Siegfried, a lifelong stranger to human ways — in Wagner's mythology, his foster father, Mime, the conniving Nibelung dwarf, belongs to an alien race — turns out a carefree creature, bursting with high spirits.

One resemblance between father and son — though it manifests itself in opposite ways — is an almost shamanistic belief in the power of their names. Triumphant in his first battle, Siegfried proclaims his boldly, hoping to find out who he is. Siegmund, by contrast, guards his name like a talisman or the mark of Cain. Challenged by Hunding to identify himself, he offers up three aliases in quick succession. The first two — Friedmund (Peaceful) and Frohwalt (Happy) — he dismisses as out of character. But the third describes him truly, and it is this one — Wehwalt (Woeful) — that he chooses to be known by. Whereupon he blows his cover with a suicidally truthful account of the havoc that has brought him straight into the lair of his mortal enemy.

The idea of arming himself with his father's sword excites Siegfried hugely, but when he finds it, that sword is in pieces and must be pulverized and melted down in order to be made anew. For all the blood they share, Siegmund and Siegfried are really nothing to each other. With death staring him in the face, Siegmund makes a credible threat to slaughter the sleeping Sieglinde rather than leave her behind to bear the unborn child of whose existence he has learned only seconds before. Siegfried, under the Schubertian spell of the murmuring linden tree, instinctively pictures Siegmund in his own image, and that is that. Thereafter Siegmund flashes through his mind just once in a significant way, when he discovers in the wandering Wotan his father's enemy and strikes out, on reflex, for revenge. 

Yet Siegmund's and Siegfried's destinies do interlock. To see how and why, we must hold in balance two distinct, equally characteristic principles of Wagnerian dramaturgy. In the pattern that governs Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, past events have led to a crisis that the stage action will bring to a clear-cut conclusion, for good or ill. The contrasting pattern of Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Parsifal presents one or morecentral characters who are condemned to relive some archetypal fiasco over and over. Call this the Sisyphean model: another wife betrays the Dutchman; Tannhäuser goes whoring again; Kundry bags her next knight of the Grail. But as the curtain rises, some agent of grace — Senta, Elisabeth, Parsifal — is drawing near to effect a cosmic reset. 

As Wagnerites well know, the narrative plan of the Ring evolved in reverse from its final chapter, originally entitled Siegfrieds Tod, a perfect example of a crisis drama. Wotan, the two-faced lawgiver and chief executive of unsustainable order, was an afterthought. Yet as the Ring took shape, Wotan's fate became the context for the lesser tragedies of the Wälsungs. Wotan's Sisyphean ordeal is to witness, over and over again, crises he is powerless to avert. 

Each crisis has its own cast of characters and its own contour, and as a result Wotan's consciousness evolves, as the Dutchman's, Tannhäuser's and Kundry's do not. Yet just as they must, he keeps pushing his rock up the mountain, compelled by Alberich's curse and his own transgressions, which deep down are the same thing. Wotan's penance — or wisdom — is to see, to know, and by the bitter end not to act. Thus, in Wotan's very absence, Siegfrieds Tod came to be overshadowed by Wotan's entanglements. As the capstone of Wotan's tragedy, this chapter of the epic very properly acquired the new name Götterdämmerung.

Does the free man Wotan has been waiting for ever emerge? Siegmund failed to fill the bill. Fathered by Wotan, molded by him and thrown into misfortunes of Wotan's devising, he is the simulacrum of a free man, capable of suffering but not of action born of his own will. 

And what of Siegfried? Working our way forward from the original sins of Das Rheingold (rather than backward from Siegfried's strangely sacrificial murder, as Wagner did), we ought to want to know: how, if at all, does this last of the Wälsungs fit into Wotan's master plan?

Here, we must delve into a question that seems to have concerned commentators very little. Call it the mystery of the mothers. Siegmund's is a shadow figure — a mortal woman butchered while Wälse and the boy were off roaming the forest. Siegfried's, of course, is Siegmund's long-lost twin sister, Sieglinde, abducted and forced into marriage at that same time. Not until the night before Siegmund's death in battle do the twins meet again. Their reunion is no coincidence. Sieglinde's house of bondage is the very place Wotan has chosen to plant Siegmund's promised sword. 

As Act I of Die Walküre unfolds onstage, the erotic passion that engulfs Siegmund and Sieglinde seems spontaneous, unforeseen, and so it is — to them. In the next act, the scandalized Fricka seems to view the consummation of their incestuous union during intermission in just that light. But Wotan accepts this turn of events with a strange, benevolent detachment. As we will soon learn, Brünnhilde knows that Sieglinde has conceived. Could it be that Wotan does not know, too? And why, having struck Siegmund down, does Wotan allow the pregnant Sieglinde to escape into the forest? Break Wotan's heart as it may to sacrifice his son, Siegmund has served his purpose. So he lets Sieglinde slip through his fingers.

Let us ask the question. If Wotan did not intend the twins to procreate, what did he have in mind? With the apocalyptic showdown between Wotan and Alberich brewing, Wotan is gathering his shock troops to Valhalla, envisioning an as yet unborn race of Wälsungs in the vanguard.

In a throwaway line, Brünnhilde lets us know that Wotan shuns Fafner's neighborhood, but in Siegfried, when it suits his mood to snoop, he pays a visit. Indeed, we might see Wotan's wanderings through that opera — stopping in to spook Mime, thumbing his nose at Alberich, rousing Erda in the middle of the night less to consult her than to put her in her place — as a vain farewell tour to set up the majesty of his play's last scene, which goes not at all according to plan. Rather than accept Wotan's blessing, Siegfried roughly pushes him aside. Thus the new order takes its course.

Like Siegmund, Siegfried follows a path traced out for him by others, first of all in slaying Fafner and taking the ring. The surprise is that when he does so, Alberich's curse leaves his soul uncorrupted. The reprise of the song of the Rhinemaidens in the orchestra as Siegfried emerges from the cave, prize in hand, asserts a first renewal of the gold's primal innocence. Awakening Brünnhilde, he carries out the plan she dreamed up before he was born. Then the snares of the fallen world — everything that is the case, in Wittgenstein's famous formulation — entrap him, too, and he succumbs to a traitor temporarily in cahoots with the wife he unwittingly betrayed.

Flash back to Act II of Die Walküre, when Wotan, cornered by Fricka, articulated the crux of the cosmic dilemma as he then understood it. What was needed, he said, was a hero, unshielded by divine protection, to break free from the law of the gods. In his rage for control, he had sought to manufacture that hero — a task that proved impossible. But thereafter, when heroism appeared full-blown before him, he turned his blind eye. Shielding Siegmund against Wotan's order, Brünnhilde embraced the hero's destiny. Casting the ring into the Rhine, she fulfills it. spacer 

MATTHEW GUREWITSCH, a longtime contributor to OPERA NEWS, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications, spent the last quarter century in New York covering the American and European cultural scene. He moved to Maui in January. 

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