To be read before
Richard Wagner was born on May 22nd 1813 in Leipzig and died on February 13th 1883 in Venice. Alongside Verdi, Wagner is incontestably the other great opera figure of the 19th century. After a difficult start (he was unable to get his first operas, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi and even Der fliegende Holländer performed), Wagner enjoyed some success in Dresden where he was appointed Court Kapellmeister, thanks, in particular, to the first performance of Tannhäuser (1845). However, his participation in the May revolution four years later prevented the performance of Lohengrin in the same city and forced him into exile in Switzerland. Whilst there, he published numerous political and critical texts (including Art and Revolution) but more importantly, he set about composing Der Ring des Nibelungen, on the basis of an outline penned a year earlier. Its composition would take over twenty years, interrupted for a long interlude by the writing of Tristan und Isolde, inspired by his love for Mathilde Wesendonk, and by Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the only one of his later operas with a happy ending. In 1871, with the backing of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner decided to build a theatre of his own design in Bayreuth and dedicated to the performance of his works. It was here that were first performed the complete cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876 and in 1882, Parsifal, his last opera, which constituted his artistic legacy.
At the end of Siegfried, the hero awakens Brünnhilde, who has been put into a deep sleep by her father Wotan at the end of Die Walküre. Punished for having defended Siegmund, she has been stripped of her divinity. Nevertheless, she has obtained from her father the right to be rescued only by a true hero. And finally he comes, only to leave again soon thereafter. The opening of Götterdämmerung shows Siegfried leaving Brünnhilde again to travel the world and carry out new exploits. These are to be his last. Arriving at the palace of the Gibichungen, he finds himself the object of a terrible plot hatched by Alberich and his son Hagen, who still seek to recuperate the ring. Numbed by a love potion, he offers to capture Brünnhilde for King Gunther and is unfaithful to her with Gutrune, the King’s sister. Brünnhilde’s vengeance is terrible. She herself tells Siegfried’s enemies where to strike him. The hero is killed and Wagner gives him one of the most impressive funeral marches in the history of music. Coming to her senses and understanding the treachery afoot, Brünnhilde throws herself into the flames and gives the ring to the Rhinemaidens. The fire spreads as far as Valhalla, where Wotan awaits his demise. A monumental work and final chapter of the “Ring”, Götterdämmerung is a world unto itself, with its mysteries (the Norns) and its intrigues (plots, poisonings, vengeance). Wagner presents this unstoppable plunge toward ruin in three long continuous acts crowned by the immolation of the Valkyrie and the blazing fire which consumes the old world and gives birth to a new humanity. Sketched out as early as 1848, it took him until 1856 to complete the libretto. The score, with its fascinating musical and metaphysical dimension, was composed much later between 1869 and 1874.
Götterdämmerung was first performed at Bayreuth to complete the Ring cycle on 17 August 1876.
The work at the Paris Opera
Siegfried was first performed at the Paris Opera on January 3, 1902 in a French language version with Jean de Reszke in the lead role and conducted by Paul Taffanel (the French première had taken place on February 17, 1900 at the Théâtre des Arts in Rouen). Numerous great artists have played the role of Siegfried on the stage of the Palais Garnier, including Paul Franz (1929), Lauritz Melchior (1930), Max Lorenz (1950), and Hans Beirer (1959). The role of Brünnhilde has been sung by, among others, Germaine Lubin (1929, 1938), Martha Mödl (1955), and Astrid Varnay (1958, 1959). And the role of the Wanderer has been performed by: Francisque Delmas (1901), Hans Hotter (1938), Sigurd Björling (1955, 1958), and Hermann Uhde (1959). The work was last performed at the Paris Opera on November 30, 1959.