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.
It was Brünnhilde herself who, at the end of Die Walküre, baptised the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, the long-awaited hero: Siegfried. And it was initially around him that Wagner conceived his Ring project, before Wotan took on almost equal importance. This, the second “day” presents Siegfried in his rebellious youth, an unruly, bear-taming, dragon-slaying adolescent. At the very heart of the Ring, between the Adagio appassionato of Die Walküre and the grandiose finale of Götterdämmerung, Siegfried has always seemed like the scherzo, a light and cheerful work. Furthermore, the hero who appears is anything but a mystical knight or the saviour of an entire people. Instead he is “a real man stripped bare”, in whom Wagner saw with delight “all the pulsating blood, all the vigorous muscular contractions amid the unfettered freedom of physical movement; simply put, man in his truest state—namely, the handsome young man in the resplendent freshness of his strength who is at the origin of all primitive legends.”
The libretto was completed in 1851 and then revised in 1852. Composition of the work got underway in September 1856 but was interrupted on numerous occasions. The first act was completed in March 1857. However, while he was working on the second act, Wagner put it aside to devote himself to Tristan und Isolde. It was not until 1869, twelve years later, after also composing Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, that Wagner completed the orchestration of the second act and began the third. The work was finished in February 1871. In the meantime, Wagner’s compositional technique had become richer still and this third act, dominated by the great duo of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, concludes the work whilst endowing it with a whole new cosmic and tragic dimension.
Siegfried was first performed on August 16, 1876 at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus under the direction of Hans Richter. .
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.