About this Recording
8.110211-13 - WAGNER, R.: Siegfried (Metropolitan Opera) (1937)
English 

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Siegfried

The third part of the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, in three acts, to the composer’s own libretto, based on the Nibelungen Saga.

Of all works from the nineteenth century repertory, Siegfried undoubtedly presents the greatest challenge to an operatic tenor; in performances customarily lasting almost four hours, the hero is on stage (usually singing) for the greater part of that time, and, of course, in many productions the same singer has still to appear in the Ring’s final part a night or two later. The rôle of the young Siegfried, as opposed to the ‘older’ Siegfried of Götterdämmerung, has been wryly noted as ‘double the length of Verdi’s Otello…and seven times the length of Canio in Pagliacci’*

Yet surely Wagner’s high expectations of his singers’ stamina were justified by the infinite care that he spent on writing, composing and revising Siegfried for its first performance. This preparation took just a few months short of twenty years, from 1851 to 1871, but that is not quite a fair assessment of his work, for it was interrupted on many occasions, most notably to compose Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and to complete, and oversee early performances of, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Undoubtedly Der Ring des Nibelungen remains the greatest ‘event’ in operatic history, and Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior remain the greatest interpreters ever to assume their respective rôles, Brünnhilde and Siegfried.

The Met broadcast of 1937 appears to be the only extant recording of these singers together in Siegfried; also, indeed, the only complete recording of the work on which Melchior appears, though this performance observes Bodansky’s customary cuts in the second and third scenes of Act 3. Melchior originally sang the young Siegfried in Magdeburg, in Germany, in 1925, the first of the 128 performances that he gave over a 23-year period. His records of extracts from Siegfried were many, the first made even before his stage début in the rôle, the most famous being extended scenes recorded by HMV with the London Symphony Orchestra, under various conductors, between 1929 and 1932. From the evidence of this Metropolitan performance, Melchior had all the resources - and more - needed to maintain power and freshness through to the vocally testing final scene with Brünnhilde. His is a remarkable achievement, surely unique amongst several generations of Heldentenors.

Flagstad was still a comparative newcomer to Siegfried’s wild wutende Weib at the time of this recording. She first sang the rôle in November 1935 in San Francisco, conducted by Bodansky. It featured less prominently in her subsequent career than the two other Brünnhildes, totalling just thirty performances, of which twenty were with the Met company. It is the shortest of the three rôles, but nevertheless demands strong, exultant expression, which Flagstad provides aplenty. Those magical phrases as she greets the sun on her awakening, the rapturous duet with which the final scene closes and the darker, vulnerable passages that link them, all are handled with radiance and grandeur for, in Wagner, Flagstad was always an aristocrat.

In this rush of praise, the contributions of the other principals must not be forgotten. Schorr’s Wanderer was familiar to Met audiences; nobility of utterance and apparently effortless legato make his interpretation one of the most memorable of the twentieth century, his beauty of tone unique among Wagnerian bass-baritones. Just a month after her Met début, Thorborg sings a resonant Erda, her voice glowing with its rich bloom; Ernest Newman averred that she was the ‘greatest Wagnerian actress of the present day’, in an age that boasted a host of fine sopranos and mezzos and it is not surprising that she was engaged at the Met for fourteen further seasons. Laufkötter’s name is less familiar, but in this, also his first Met season, he wheedles and sings as Mime, not resorting to the exaggerated yelps that some interpreters prefer. Together with Schorr and Habich, (a most effective Alberich) he appears on an equally thrilling Das Rheingold (Naxos 8.110047-8) recorded nine weeks later in Boston.

Enthusiasts will always argue and discuss the merits of different recorded performances. Suffice it to say that in this Siegfried are assembled the four greatest Wagnerian singers of their day, perhaps of the century, and that surely counts for much.

‘Hei! Siegfried gehört nun Nibelungen Hort!’

‘And now the Nibelung’s treasure is in Siegfried’s hands!’

Forest Bird, Siegfried, Act 2

 

*(Quoted in Tristanissimo, the authorized biography of Lauritz Melchior, by Shirlee Emmons, published by Schirmer Books.)

 

 

Siegfried was first performed on 16th August 1876 at the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

Lauritz Melchior was born in Copenhagen in 1890 and made his début as a baritone in 1913. Five years later, after re-training, he emerged as a tenor, first singing the rôle of Tannhäuser, and appeared at Covent Garden, Bayreuth, Berlin and the Met in quick succession. From 1930 to 1950 he sang mainly in New York, where he performed only in Wagnerian opera, but also made appearances throughout Europe and the United States, and in Buenos Aires. In later years he acted successfully in films (including Luxury Liner) and took part in a number of Broadway shows. Melchior died in California in 1973.

Kirsten Flagstad was born in Hamar, in Norway, in 1895 and made her professional début in 1913. She first sang at Bayreuth in 1933 and after appearing in New York (1935) and London (1936) consolidated her position as the world’s finest Wagnerian soprano. Flagstad went back to Norway in 1941 and after the war gave recitals throughout the United States, but did not return to the Met until 1951. She appeared at Covent Garden from 1948 to 1951, and at the 1949 Salzburg Festival singing Fidelio. Flagstad later became Director of the Norwegian National Opera and died in Oslo in 1962.

A native Hungarian, Friedrich Schorr was born in 1888, making both his American and European débuts in 1912. He achieved particular success in Berlin where he appeared from 1923, and was subsequently heard at Bayreuth, Covent Garden and the Met (from 1924) where he gave over four hundred performances. Schorr sang in a wide range of operas but his supremacy in the Wagnerian repertory - Sachs, the Flying Dutchman, Amfortas and the Wanderer - was undisputed. He died in 1953.

The mezzo-soprano Kerstin Thorborg was born in 1896 and studied in Stockholm. Following eight seasons with the Swedish Royal Opera she was invited to Berlin, Dresden, Nuremberg and Prague and, from 1936, to Covent Garden and the Met, where she sang for fifteen seasons. Bruno Walter engaged her for Salzburg in 1935, after which she also appeared at the Vienna Staatsoper. Mainly remembered for her success in Wagnerian rôles, she sang Orpheus, Ulrica, Octavian, Marina and Dalila to equal acclaim. She died in 1970.

The conductor Artur Bodansky was born in Vienna in 1877 and was an assistant to Mahler at the State Opera. After giving performances in London, Paris and throughout Germany, in 1915 he was appointed conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, a post he held until his death. Whilst presenting a wide range of opera in the United States, he is best remembered for his work in the German ‘wing’, conducting virtually every Wagner performance at the Met for twenty years. He died in 1939.

Paul Campion

 

Synopsis

CD 1

Act I

Prelude

1 The Prelude to Act I reflects the thoughts of the Nibelung Mime.

Scene 1

2 Mime sits by the forge in his cave in the forest, hammering out a sword and complaining about his endless labour. He can make swords strong enough for giants, but Siegfried breaks them in two like children’s toys, but if he could join together the blade of the great sword Nothung, Siegfried would be able to kill the dragon giant Fafner, and then Mime could gain possession of the ring. He continues his work and his complaint.

3 Siegfried comes cheerfully in from the forest. He is leading a bear, jokingly provoking it to attack Mime, who cowers in fear. Siegfried sets the bear free and it trots back to the wood. He had sought a friend in the forest, sounded his horn and been joined by the bear. Mime has forged a sword for Siegfried, who takes the offered weapon, looking at it critically. He strikes the anvil with it and the sword breaks in pieces. He abuses Mime for his bad craftsmanship.

4 Mime reproaches Siegfried for his ingratitude. Mime has looked after him, as he explains in his so-called nursing song, but is only hated in return.

5 Siegfried admits that he has learned much from Mime, but never to like him. In fact he cannot stand him, always recognising the evil in him and preferring animals to him. Mime tries to come near him, saying that in his heart he really loves him, as a young bird loves its mother. Siegfried, though, has seen animals in the forest and asks where the woman is who is his mother. Mime claims to be both mother and father to him, but he has seen his reflection and knows he in no way resembles Mime. He asks where his true parents are.

5 Mime declares that he is no relation to Siegfried, but found Sieglinde in the forest, about to give birth to a child, and sheltered her out of pity. She died and Mime looked after the child. In answer to Siegfried’s question, he tells him that his mother said that the child must be called Siegfried and that her name was Sieglinde. The sword was left him by his mother.

6 Siegfried orders Mime to repair immediately the broken sword, threatening him. With it he will go forth into the world, happy and free, and never come back. He dashes out into the forest, leaving Mime calling after him, before returning to the anvil and musing on the impossibility of mending the sword and letting Siegfried deal with Fafner.

Scene 2

8 Wotan, in the guise of the Wanderer, comes out of the forest. He wears a long blue cloak, carrying a spear as a staff. On his head is a wide-brimmed hat. He seeks Mime’s hospitality, which the latter is unwilling to give. The Wanderer offers to stake his life on being able to answers Mime’s questions, if he fails; if he succeeds, he claims hospitality. Mime, anxious to defeat the unwanted guest, asks what race lives in the depths of the earth, and the Wanderer tells him the Nibelungs, who were forced by a magic ring to provide a rich treasure for Alberich, who sought to rule the world with it. To the second question as to the race living on the surface of the earth, the Wanderer answers that it is the giants; the giants Fasolt and Fafner took the Nibelungs’ treasure and Fafner then killed his brother, taking the form of a dragon and guarding the treasure. Mime asks a third question as to what race lives above.

 

9 The Wanderer tells him that gods live in the cloud-covered heights and their ruler is Wotan, in Valhalla. He has a spear and on it are the decrees that make the Nibelungs and giants subject for ever to the gods. Mime’s questions were nothing, but now Mime too must wager his head against three questions from the Wanderer. He asks first the name of the family that has been the object of Wotan’s anger, although he loves them. Mime answers correctly that it is the family of the Volsungs, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and their offspring Siegfried. The Wanderer asks what sword Siegfried must use to kill Fafner, and is told that it is Nothung. Mime rashly continues with the story of Nothung, broken by the spear of Wotan, but to be mended by a clever smith and used by a childish hero for Mime’s own profit.

The Wanderer’s third question as to who will join together again the broken sword Mime cannot answer; his life now must be at the mercy of the one who will forge Nothung, the one who is fearless. The Wanderer leaves, smiling, while Mime sinks down on his stool in fear.

 

 

Scene 3

10 Shuddering, Mime looks towards the forest, now lit by an accursed light that seems to approach, Fafner coming for him. With a cry, he collapses behind the anvil. Siegfried comes cheerfully in, looking around for Mime, and when he sees him asks why he is hiding behind the anvil. He asks about the sword. Mime recalls that only the one who has never known fear will forge the sword and resolves to teach Siegfried this lesson, thereby saving his own life.

11 Siegfried asks what fear is. Mime tells him that his mother has said that he must learn what fear is, before going out into the world. He talks of the terrors of the darkness in the forest, strange noises and mysterious lights that make him tremble. Siegfried knows nothing of this, but Mime will take him to Fafner, who will teach him. Mime admits that he cannot mend the sword and Siegfried takes the broken pieces, files them down and heats the forge until it is glowing hot. Mime now realises that it is Siegfried who will kill him, but resolves, nevertheless, to use Siegfried to kill the dragon Fafner and then to try to take the ring from him.

12 Siegfried, who now knows the name of the sword, Nothung, sings to it, as he forges it anew, describing what he is doing, how he felled a tree in the forest, which now blazes in the forge. Mime makes ready a drugged drink to give Siegfried after the combat with Fafner, while the hero happily continues his work.

13 Enjoying his task, Siegfried bids his hammer strike and continues his song, while Mime is busy with his own plans. He takes the sword, now made whole again, and strikes the anvil, breaking it in two, now holding Nothung on high.

CD 2

Act II

1 The Prelude suggests the depth of the dark forest, by Fafner’s cave, and contains, near the end, the motif of Alberich’s hatred.

Scene 1

2 Outside Fafner’s cave Alberich is watching, in the forest and the night. He is aware of a light, although it is still night. In a ray of moonlight he sees the Wanderer, whom Alberich recognises, angrily bidding him away. Wotan tells him that he comes only to watch, since he cannot, as Alberich reminds him, break his agreement with Fafner, who had been given the ring and other treasure in return for the release of the goddess Freia.

3 Alberich threatens Wotan with his plans to seize power through the ring and storm Valhalla, to become ruler of the world. Wotan calmly answers that Alberich’s ambitions do not worry him. He tells Alberich of Siegfried, who knows nothing of the ring, and of Mime’s cunning plot: Mime is the only one seeking the ring, while Siegfried is his own master, to do or die: the hero is approaching, if Fafner is warned, he might give up the ring. He calls out to Fafner, waking the dragon in his cave. Fafner, however, will not listen to the warning, since fate will dictate the outcome. Wotan goes and Alberich, swearing revenge, hides among the rocks.

 

 

 

Scene 2

4 It is dawn, as Mime and Siegfried approach Fafner’s cave, where Mime tells Siegfried he is to learn the necessary lesson of fear and goes on to describe the terrible dragon. Siegfried has no apprehension and suggests how the dragon should be killed. Mime asks him if he is yet afraid, but Siegfried thinks nothing of all this lesson, rejecting Mime’s professed love for him. Mime tells him that in the daylight the dragon will come out to drink at the spring, and Siegfried tells Mime to stay by the spring, in that case: if he does not, he can be gone. Mime hopes the two, Fafner and Siegfried, may kill each other, as he goes away into the forest.

5 Siegfried, stretched out under a linden-tree, is glad that Mime is not his father: Mime’s son would look like him, but he wonders what his own father and mother were like, and if all human mothers die if they bear a son. He longs to see his own mother. In the stillness of the morning he hears the singing of the birds and asks again about his mother. Mime had told him that there was a way of understanding the song of birds.

6 He tries out the way he has been told, by making a reed-pipe and imitating the birds, but the sound from the hastily fashioned reed is not good. He hears a bird sing again and throws the reed away, taking his horn, which he plays.

7 The horn-call rouses Fafner, who emerges slowly from his cave, then stops, looking at Siegfried. The latter, unperturbed, asks Fafner to teach him how to fear and then taunts him, and, seizing his sword, attacks him. After a brief combat, Siegfried pierces Fafner to the heart. As the dragon dies, he tells of the accursed gold and how he killed his brother Fasolt and now he, the last of the giants, is dying. He warns Siegfried of the danger from the one who brought him there. Siegfried pulls his sword out of the mortal wound and feels the giant’s blood on his hand burning like fire.

8 Siegfried puts his hand to his lips, to soothe the pain, and now understands the song of the bird, which tells him to seek in Fafner’s cave the Nibelung’s gold, the Tarncap, and the ring, which will give him power over the whole world. Siegfried thanks the bird for his counsel, as he enters the cave.

Scene 3

9 Mime returns, looking around to make sure that Fafner is dead. At the same time Alberich appears, preventing Mime entering the cave. The two quarrel as to who shall have the treasure, one claiming to have been the creator of the ring, and the other of the Tarncap. Mime suggests they should share the treasure, but Alberich angrily rejects the proposal. They are surprised to see Siegfried emerging from the cave, with the Tarncap and the ring, which Mime thinks he can soon take from him.

10 Siegfried does not understand what use these things are to him, but resolves to keep them as symbols of his fight against Fafner, although he still has not learned how to fear. He puts the Tarncap in his girdle and the ring on his finger. The voice of the bird is heard again, warning him not to trust Mime, whose thoughts he will be able to read through the dragon’s blood. He stands watching Mime approach and Mime welcomes him, asking him if he has learned fear, but Siegfried tells him he found no teacher. In spite of his seemingly friendly words, his thoughts, audible to Siegfried, express his hatred for the boy, to Mime’s consternation. Mime offers Siegfried the draught he has prepared, adding, in his thoughts, his intention of taking Siegfried’s sword and the treasure. Mime claims that Siegfried has not understood him and urges him further to drink, adding that the drink will soon render him insensible, so that Mime can chop his head off and gain possession of the ring. He is again astonished that Siegfried has heard his murderous thoughts. Siegfried strikes him dead with his sword, while Alberich, from his hiding-place, laughs.

11 Siegfried throws Mime’s body into the cave, and drags the dragon’s to cover the mouth of the cave, both to guard the treasure. Tired, he stretches out under the linden-tree. He tells the bird of his loneliness, with no brother or sister, no father and no mother, his only companion an ugly dwarf. From the bird he seeks counsel and a companion.

12 He bids the bird sing and is told of a wonderful woman, who sleeps on a high rock, surrounded by flames; if Siegfried wakens her, Brünnhilde will be his. He asks the bird what this feeling is in his heart and the bird tells him that it is love. He asks if he will be able to pass through the fire, and the bird tells him that one who does not know fear can accomplish this. He asks how he shall find the rock, and the bird flies off, leading the way, Siegfried following.

CD 3

Act III

1 The Prelude recalls the wandering of Wotan, bound by the agreements he has made and fated to wander.

2 There is thunder and lightning, as Wotan approaches a cave at the foot of the rock where Brünnhilde lies. He calls on Erda, goddess of fate, to awake and rise from the depths.

3 Erda slowly rises from the depths of the earth, waking. Wotan tells her he has come to seek her advice; he has wandered long and far, but she knows more than he does. She tells him to seek counsel from her daughters, the Norns, spinners of fate, but it is Erda’s wisdom that Wotan seeks. She tells him to seek out Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie, that she bore for him. He inveighs against the Valkyrie, sleeping and only to be wakened by a mortal, and Erda is angry at Brünnhilde’s fate. He seeks to know about the end of the gods, and Erda tells him that he is no longer a god.

4 Wotan wills her wisdom at an end; Siegfried must be his heir, possessor of the ring and safe from Alberich, since he does not know fear. Siegfried will wake Brünnhilde and she, with her knowledge, will save the world. He orders Erda back, now to eternal sleep, and she disappears again into the depths of the earth.

Scene 2

5 Dawn is breaking, and the Wanderer sees Siegfried approaching.

 

6 Siegfried, following the forest-bird, enters. The bird suddenly stops in its course, fluttering about, as it sees the Wanderer, before quickly disappearing into the background. Siegfried is about to continue his journey, when the Wanderer asks him where he is going. Siegfried tells him he is looking for a rock surrounded by fire, and on the rock a woman, whom he is to wake. In answer to the Wanderer’s further questions, he tells him that a bird had brought him there [and that he could understand the bird because of the blood of the dragon that he had killed. He explains how Mime had brought him to the dragon’s cave and the sword he used that he had forged himself. He asks the old man to tell him the way to the rock he seeks, but the Wanderer urges patience. Siegfried threatens him, anxious to continue his quest, which this strange man, with his broad-brimmed hat and one eye, is obstructing]. The Wanderer blocks Siegfried’s path, but when he uses his spear against the sword, Nothung, it is now the spear that breaks, and with it Wotan’s power.

7 The Wanderer can no longer stand in Siegfried’s way, and suddenly disappears. The light of the flames becomes more evident and Siegfried goes on, blowing his horn, the fire soon engulfing the whole scene.

Scene 3

8 The flames grow less, as Siegfried reaches the summit, where Brünnhilde sleeps, with her horse Grane by her. He looks at the scene in wonder, seeing the horse and Brünnhilde’s shining armour, raising her shield to reveal her, as she sleeps. He is in wonder at her beauty and with his sword he cuts her free from the shackles that bind her. He trembles, thinking that now perhaps he has learned fear, and calls on his mother for help. He seeks to wake Brünnhilde, kissing her as she sleeps. She opens her eyes.

9 Brünnhilde greets the sun, after her long sleep, and seeks to know who it is that has wakened her. Spellbound, Siegfried tells her how he came through the fire and reveals to her his name. She thanks the gods, greeting the world and the earth, now her long sleep is over. Siegfried joins her in an expression of their joy. She tells him how she has loved him.

10 Siegfried thinks he sees his mother, but Brünnhilde tells him his mother has not returned for him. She promises him her knowledge, for it was for him that she struggled and strove, but Siegfried cannot yet understand. [She looks at her horse and her weapons that no longer protect her. Burning with love, Siegfried tries to embrace her,] but she leaps away from him, a maiden untouched by gods. Reminded of her love for him, she understands that she will lose her wisdom.

11 Brünnhilde tries to keep Siegfried away from her, but in the end gives way to his love and her own feelings. Now they both feel the rapture of love, as she bids farewell to Valhalla and willingly sees the twilight of the gods, herself united with Siegfried for ever.


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