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What is Siegfried?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2016
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Siegfried is the third opera in Der Ring des Nibelungen — The Ring Cycle, by German composer Richard Wagner. It is a three act opera, created with Wagner’s own libretto. When the entire Ring Cycle is performed, this work is given on the second full day of performance, following Das Rheingold — The Rhinegold in English, and Die Walküre — The Valkyrie in English.

The opera was first performed at Bayreuth at the Festspielhaus on 16 August 1876, within the premiere of the entire Ring Cycle, which was performed on August 13–17. The theatre had been built to Wagner’s specifications, and this was the opening performance. Around 4,000 visitors came to the town for the performance, including many crowned heads of Europe and composers such as P’yotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky, Edvard Grieg, Franz Liszt, and Camille Saints-Saëns.

Act I opens to reveal the dwarf Mime, who has raised Siegfried since his mother Sieglinde died in childbirth, and has pretended to be his father. Mime is trying to forge a sword from the broken pieces of the sword of Siegfried’s father. If this were possible, Siegfried could wield the sword to kill the dragon Fafnir and retake the ring for Mime.

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The god Wotan, disguised as the Wanderer, enters and requests hospitality. They play a riddle game, and through it, the Wanderer reveals the that sword will be forged by someone who has never felt fear. Although Mime loses the game, the Wanderer says that he must pay his forfeit to the sword forger. Siegfried forges the sword, while Mime plans to kill him with it after he has recovered the ring.

Act II opens at the dragon’s cave, where Siegfried stabs Fafner in the heart. As he dies, Fafner reveals Siegfried’s history to him. When a drop of the dragon’s blood gets in his mouth, he becomes able to understand birdsong, and he follows the advice of the Woodbird to take a helmet called the Tarnhelm, as well as the ring.

As he goes into the cave to retrieve the two items, Mime and his brother Alberich appear at the mouth and argue about the ownership of the treasure. The Woodbird warns Siegfried of Mime, who offers him a drugged drink, but unintentionally gives away his intentions. Siegfried kills him, as the Wanderer had predicted. The Woodbird tells him of a bride who awaits him, and he follows the bird in search of her.

In Act III, Siegfried is led by the Woodbird to a cave where the Wanderer awaits him. After hearing his adventures, the Wanderer attempts to block his path, realizing that what follows should he find his bride will signal the end of the gods. Siegfried’s sword splits the shaft of the Wanderer’s spear, which is the symbolic breaking of Wotan’s authority. The Wanderer vanishes.

Passing through flames, Siegfried reaches the sleeping Brünnhilde and feels fear for the first time. He does not know that she is a Valkyrie and Wotan’s favorite daughter, who will become mortal on wakening. He kisses her, and she awakes, with resulting emotional confusion for both of them. But eventually, they claim each other.

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