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»Leuchtende Liebe, lachender Tod!« - Deutsche Oper Berlin

Aus dem Programmheft

“Luminous love, laughing death!”

On the new production of SIEGFRIED by Stefan Herheim ... An essay by Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach


1. On laughing: Mime, malice and mockery

In his memoirs the singing teacher Julius Hey, whom Richard Wagner esteemed highly and regularly consulted, recalls a rehearsal of SIEGFRIED before its premiere with Georg Unger in the title role and Richard Wagner as Mime. Far from simply marking, Wagner performed “the role with full voice the whole act through”; “and how he sang his ‘schoolmaster Mime’! […] – one should not forget that he did not possess a ‘voice’ in the commonly accepted sense!” While the tenor was soon exhausted – “Unger’s palatal singing sounded tortured, lacking timbre, utterly negligible” – Wagner, “incomparably characteristic in expression”, created a figure “so clear-cut and sharply outlined as may never perhaps be experienced in the theatre!”

Hey remembers how Wagner also taught the tenor the calls of “Heiaho!” and how, at the age of 62, the composer remained “fresh and ‘voiced’ – in spite of constant talking and singing!” The way Wagner performed Mime the dwarf around the piano in Unger’s apartment in Bayreuth (Ziegelgasse) led Hey to an observation that may in fact encapsulate an essential truth about the stage festival play THE RING OF THE NIBELUNGS in its entirety: “the unerring artist’s will allowed one to follow clearly the work as it progressed in its dramatic structure, from the general poetic sensibility to the completed music-dramatic manifestation, evolving out of the indivisible unity of words and notes!” Words and music having grown into one another like this is what makes for a new intensity in the drama, in music theatre terms; it culminates, in SIEGFRIED, in the exultant repetitions of the final line “Luminous love, laughing death!” which the eponymous hero and Brünnhilde proclaim to the world, fortissimo, in resplendent C major. In it, not only are the dichotomies of love and death, light and shadow, eros and thanatos bound up together, but also explicit mention is made of laughing.

Laughing plays a notable role in the RING. It occurs over a hundred times in the libretto and the stage directions of the tetralogy – over three dozen times in SIEGFRIED alone – not including Mime’s laughter composed on one note “Hihihi”, his sniggering, or the orchestra’s reprise of the latter. Essentially laughter can be construed as having two meanings in the RING: mockery and joy. In the preliminary evening, the Rhinegold is apostrophised as “luminous joy, how bright and fair your laughter!” in terms celebrating harmony with nature, while Fricka censures Wotan for his “laughingly wanton folly” and Alberich pronounces his curse on the ring, “laughing grimly”. From the outset, then, laughter connotes sensual delight and spiteful scorn – two sides of the same coin.

Siegfried, who has not yet learned to fear, is introduced laughing: “in high spirits” he sets a wild beast on Mime, and after his first words the stage directions describe him as “laughing uncontrollably”. Once the terrifying animal has been driven off, Siegfried’s behaviour is specified in the directions: “sits down to recover from his laughter”. This laughter is therefore full of malice, blatant aggression as well as playful exuberance and as such calls to mind a later classification. In 1913, exactly 100 years after Richard Wagner’s birth, the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, a very close associate and personal friend of Sigmund Freud, wrote the following in a notebook: “Laughter is the vomiting of air from the lungs, sobbing is the guzzling of air.” The close association of the two contrary actions is evoked much more poetically by Goethe: Endlich fasse dir ein Herz / Und begreif’s geschwinder: / Lachen, Weinen, Lust und Schmerz / Sind Geschwisterkinder. [“Laughing, crying, pleasure and pain are sibling children.”] Here, laughing and crying do not operate as linguistic antonyms but instead are quite literally kindred; it is similar with laughing and crying in Ferenczi, with the vomiting or guzzling of air constituting merely a change of direction in the flow of oxygen. Goethe’s sibling formulation, which additionally incorporates pleasure and pain, is apposite also, later in the genealogy, for the RING, in which laughter, rather than displaying a clear binary opposition between joy and scorn, manifests itself in many nuances and transitional gradations.

The prelude to SIEGFRIED in B flat minor commences with a muted tremolo on the timpani; then a sequence of disquieting thirds separated by a diminished seventh are heard in the bass: the Brooding motif. We hear the sombre sounds of the Nibelung, Grief and Hoard motifs, the Forge ostinato, the Sword motif of Wotan and Siegmund, and the motif of the cursed ring. Evidently and audibly we are in the midst of a shadowy amalgamation of motifs, the focus of which is not necessarily clear. Is Mime remembering? Is Wotan brooding? Is Alberich smarting with resentment? Leitmotifs are always deployed, of course, to awaken memories and to suggest what is to come; they open up possible, complex cognitive spaces. They are most definitely not jingles for easy recognition, but instead form an “associative magic” – Beziehungszauber, in Thomas Mann’s felicitous phrase. Situated between the “elves” of light and dark is Mime the dwarf, who utters the first words of the opera: “Forced drudgery! Futile effort!” It will be a long journey until we reach the rhythmically analogous last words of the opera, which a human couple proclaim as a utopian potential: “Luminous love, laughing death!”


2. On fearing: Siegfried, Wotan and other men

On 12 October 1848 the theatre director, singer, actor and author Eduard Devrient made the following entry in his diary:

»Towards evening the kapellmeister Wagner came […]. He read us his compilation of the Siegfried sagas; it was done with great talent. He wants to make an opera out of it. Nothing will come of it, I fear. Nordic myth is not widely liked, for one thing because it’s unknown. And those rough-hewn giants must be left to the imagination; the realities of our stage will make them small and trifling. Also, Wagner always extends the scope too much and weaves his modern views in.«

“Nordic myth” is now well known and, beyond individual imagination, it has been given concrete form many times already – textually, pictorially, musically and on film, too. But do the realities of a stage really make the giants “small and trifling”? Does Wagner always extend the scope too much? Does he – and most particularly do we, in what is created in later times – weave in modern views? And if so, wouldn’t that be wonderful?!

But first of all let’s focus on the title character. How did Wagner visualise his Siegfried? On the one hand Wagner characterises Siegfried in an incorporeal ideal way – for instance as the “spirit of the perennial and sole creative instinct, of the effecting of real deeds, of man in the fullness of utmost, untrammelled strength and most doubtless love-worthiness”, as he wrote in A Communication to my Friends in 1851. In that same text, however, the Siegfried character is also portrayed in a sensuous way with a quasi erotic potential; Wagner describes him thus: “the youthfully handsome man luxuriating in the freshness of his vigour […] the real, naked man in whom I might recognise each throbbing of the blood, each twitch of the powerful muscles”. The spirit of action and the body of youthfulness were to combine in the sensual drama of the “free hero”. In 1870, reviewing the opera’s genesis spanning many years, Wagner summed up Siegfried as follows: “The best thing about him is the foolish youth; the man is a horror.” The grown man, lacking consciousness, is not, after all, one upon which a new world can be built. “Luminous love, laughing death!” is an ecstatic record of the moment in which adolescence disappears – not a solid foundation on which an adult self can be created.

Alberich is therefore spot on at the beginning of Act Two of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS when he describes the hero Siegfried’s character as follows: “Laughing in loving desire, / he burns up his life.” Siegfried is the present, the moment – neither the experience of past ordeals nor concern about impending danger troubles him at all. That the hero burns, laughing in loving desire, as Alberich remarks, is manifest at the end of the closing duet in SIEGFRIED: “Luminous love, laughing death!” – an exclamation that employs the same imagery as the Alberich quotation above: laughing, loving, light and transience. But how does the title character get to that point?

The hero is mentioned for the first time in Act Three of THE VALKYRIE – Brünnhilde refers to him as “the noblest hero in the world […] in the shelter of your [i.e. Sieglinde’s] womb”. He does not remain nameless, but is immediately accorded a nominal identity – Brünnhilde baptises him: “Let me give him his name: / Siegfried, joyous in victory!” Sieglinde’s reaction to this is highly significant, as her musical motif here is to recur in the finale of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS. There it frames Brünnhilde’s closing oration and proclaims the message of the whole cycle amorphously in music. We remember this Redemption Through Love motif as having been previously associated with Sieglinde’s reaction to the announcement that she is pregnant with Siegfried: “Oh, mightiest of miracles!”

Richard Wagner’s only son, born in 1869 when he was in the middle of composing the third act of SIEGFRIED, was named after the hero of the opera. Christmas Eve in 1870, Cosima’s 33rd birthday, saw the first performance of the Siegfried Idyll in grateful commemoration of the birth of their son Siegfried; the work uses melodies and motifs from the second day of the tetralogy in the form of a symphonic poem for chamber orchestra. In spite of already having daughters together, Wagner and Cosima had only got married a few months before this – following the birth of the boy. Cosima’s diary entry after her confinement begins with the exclamation: “Hail to the day gleaming around us, hail to the sun shining upon us!” With these lines, which were set in Act Three of SIEGFRIED, she expresses her boundless joy about having a male successor, which seemed to be of much more value to her, and to Wagner, than their two daughters. With Fidi, redemptory male succession had now apparently been secured in the flesh.

While the death of the Siegfried figure was the initial spark for Wagner’s RING, in the long genesis of the work it is Wotan that developed into the more interesting character and the one that went through a greater evolution. In summer 1875 in the preliminary stage of his work on Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, Nietzsche noted down on a loose sheet: “Wotan’s attitude towards Siegfried is something wonderful, such as no poetry in the world possesses: love and enforced enmity and delight in destruction. This is highly symbolic of Wagner’s nature: love for that which one is redeemed, judged and destroyed by; but quite divinely perceived!” Redemption, judgement and destruction in the name of love – but quite divinely perceived… that is the verbal quintessence of the entire tetralogy and epitomises the tragic dimension of Wotan, Wagner and the world.

When the god Wotan makes his entrance in SIEGFRIED disguised as the Wanderer, it is not only musically impressive. At the world premiere of 1876 he even had his own blue spotlight and was “bathed in a ghostly light” as a review notes. Eduard Hanslick was not to be dazzled, however. He found the riddle scene superfluous and opined that the moment one catches sight of the tip of Wotan’s spear, “half an hour of emphatic boredom is guaranteed”. The sharp-tongued critic is glad to see Siegfried in Act Three break the “soporific spear of the divine nightwatchman” and thus send him back into the wings. The novel colourful lighting, almost expressionistic, was admired at the first festival, but harshly criticised as well, because the bright spotlights on Wotan kept exposing the backdrop as what it was; the illusion was destroyed – the tree became painted canvas. A critic complained that instead of the heavens one saw “a length of sailcloth”. Today this is something that on principle we don’t hide but leave exposed – a canvas or projection screen representing a certain agreement which the characters in the drama and the collection of fugitives on the stage, and indeed also the people in the auditorium, are all party to. The wandering Wotan remains the director of this show and knows how to conjure enchanting illusions as well as sobering realities on the silk screen. He acts in the drama himself when he means to get round his own rules of the game in order to establish a new world, first with and then through Siegfried.

In the game this happens for instance with the birdsong, by means of which Wotan, apparently in accordance with the rules, communicates indirectly with Siegfried. Wagner in fact intended the role of the woodbird to be sung by a boy, though since the premiere it has become common practice to cast a woman. From the dramatic point of view the first female that is audible, visible and sensorily perceptible for Siegfried should obviously be Brünnhilde, who then teaches the young man fear. From the moment Wotan puts his volition to sleep with the Valkyrie, not a single female voice is heard again in the work, until Erda points out this shortcoming in her encounter with the Wanderer: “My mind grows misty with the deeds of men.”

In a letter to King Ludwig II in 1869, Richard Wagner explained the meaning of the woodbird for Siegfried: “The woodbird, whose language he now understands, is to him in a way the only being to which he feels related. And now the shudder of delight when it announces Brünnhilde is in store for him!! So, what does all this mean? It’s not a family scene with children; the fate of the world depends on the divine simplicity and uniqueness of this sole fearless man!” This emotional kinship of Siegfried and the woodbird, which indeed is no “family scene with children” but shapes the fate of a world, situates their meeting between poetry and psychoanalysis. Siegfried does not come to possess a reflecting consciousness, but remains a big child in his naive rowdiness. When he encounters Wotan in the guise of the Wanderer, the latter distances himself angrily from the now vanished bird: “It flew from you to save itself. It felt the presence of the lord of the ravens: woe to it if they catch it!” These ravens – identified in the Edda as Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory) – will gain significance in TWILIGHT OF THE GODS and ultimately assist in Siegfried’s death.

While the fluttering diminutive woodbird is something of a challenge to stage, the dragon is and has always been primarily a technical challenge. The monster of the premiere performance, for which Wagner bought an expensive masterpiece of machinery in England, did not prove fully convincing. A critic described it as “a cross between a lizard and a porcupine with tufts of hair” and found it “a spectacle fit for the fair”. Wagner was aware of the dragon’s shortcomings and wrote to Ludwig II in 1878 that the forward part of the dragon’s body should be visible “not in profile” but only en face, closing by saying that for the situation to remedied, he would again need more money. The dragon prompted some amusement among the spectators. Camille Saint-Saëns, who was present at the premiere, was generally well-disposed, writing that it was “the boldest thing that has ever been presented in the theatre […] one smiles involuntarily a little at the monster. But it’s still a very respectable stage dragon”. One critic classified the scene as “a puppet show for late adolescence and second childhood”. And yet if the disparagingly meant “puppet show” and the “stage dragon” that makes you smile are taken seriously in their intentional theatricality, then we recognise this piece of stage machinery as a heroic accomplishment that goes beyond fairytale dragon slaying, inasmuch as the dragon construction of the Fafner character and the sounding body of the singer reveal part of the magic of performance – just as creative artifice becomes visible with the famous green man behind the curtain in The Wizard Of Oz.

In a letter of 1851, Wagner had the following to say about the storyline of SIEGFRIED: “it uses play to teach the audience the crucial myth, as a child is taught a fairy tale. Everything sinks in, as a result of vivid sensory impressions; everything is grasped”. The audience, he says, should be taught something by means of intelligible play, and he also gives the compelling reason for it: when the last part comes, TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, “the audience understands everything that had to be simply accepted as given or could only be hinted at there, and – I’ve achieved my aim”. It is Wagner that plays with us, intentionally playing a game about the lovelessness of power and the powerlessness of love and he brings it to a climax in the final scene of SIEGFRIED. In point of fact it is notes on the Siegfried and Brünnhilde scene from the summer of 1850 that stand at the very origin of the composition of the RING, which was to extend over 26 years – the nucleus consists in the utopian transfiguration of love as an alternative to power. At that time Wagner also composed the Ride of the Valkyries in reaction to Meyerbeer. Thus from the beginning he repeatedly critiques the genre of opera, its evolutions and excesses, and in the melodic flow of the closing duet he wants to shine out and laugh.


3. On loving: Dreams of a woman awakened

In summer 1851 Wagner sent August Röckel a condensed summary of SIEGFRIED with a rather enigmatically worded conclusion: “Siegfried passes through the fire and awakens Brünnhilde, the woman, to a loving embrace of supreme delight. Just one further point – we came to it in our fiery discussions – we are not what we can and should be until the woman is awakened.” This idea of a man only being whole once he has awakened the other, the woman, is one that Wagner perverted somewhat in his own biography: he made use of Siegfried’s verses from the radiant ending (“She is mine for ever,/ always mine,/ my heritage and my own,/ my one and all”) not once but twice in love letters, the first to Mathilde Wesendonck in 1859, the second nearly ten years later to Cosima von Bülow. His “for ever and always”, his “one and all” are, from the human point of view, no doubt much more limited, momentary and porous, however, than the hero’s impassioned promises in the work of art. So this, too, remains game-playing in the final analysis – and we are conscious of this when we then encounter it in TWILIGHT OF THE GODS.

From the philosophical point of view what Wagner meant, though, was unifying the male and female in his personality, in his genius, and lending expression to that in text and music. In a letter in 1854 he wrote: “alone (the man) is not the consummate person: he is only one half; only with Brünnhilde does he become a redeemer; no ‘one’ can do everything.” It is precisely in the practical application of this realisation that “no ‘one’ can do everything” that the process proves defective – where we historically often fail in our own realities, just as the fugitives and seekers on the stage do. The finale of SIEGFRIED, pure C major jubilation, anticipates a world that probably cannot be made to endure at all beyond the moment.

Saint-Saëns found the closing scene “moving”, though he noted the character direction was “not entirely successful” as the singers “remained standing on the spot the whole time instead of moving in the agitation that the intense emotional outbursts would normally induce”. These “intense emotional outbursts” drew astonished indignation from critics at the premiere. Hanslick poked fun at the “sultriness of an overheated boiler” and deplored the “overexcited moaning, stammering and bawling” that was typical, he said, of Wagner “in such scenes of lusting”. Speidel was appalled at “how totally overwrought Wagner’s music is, highly strung in the extreme, endlessly beside itself, stammering about love, lavishly though abstractly paraphrasing sexual acts”. As to the love scene, Mohr asked “where art stops and how to put it? – pathology begins”. Schletterer reports “scenes […] of wild lust and fervid lasciviousness, painted with faunlike relish”, pronouncing them “incomprehensible transgressions of taste”. These immediate reactions to the premiere performance, in their use of expressions like “incomprehensible” and “beside itself”, raise the question of what, in fact, is representable artistically. “Overexcited bawling” is a derogatory description, to be sure, but nevertheless in essence an apposite one, referring as it does to the heightened mode of singing in operatic art. And we encounter that in an exceptional form in the scene where Siegfried and Brünnhilde meet.

Even though Wagner’s interest in the material of the RING extended backwards from the action of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, he quickly realised how important Siegfried’s origins were for the whole projected work, and thus set about writing Der junge Siegfried straight after Siegfrieds Tod. In a letter to Theodor Uhlig from 1851 he writes: “Did I ever write to you earlier about a comic tale? This was the lad who goes out into the world ‘to learn fear’ and is so dull that he never manages to learn it. Imagine my alarm when I suddenly realised that this lad is none other than the young Siegfried who gains the treasure and awakens Brünnhilde!” Now, there is very much more to this awakening than a kiss that wakes a Sleeping Beauty. Something fundamental happens as a result of Siegfried’s kiss and Brünnhilde’s awakening: love bursts into the mythic fairytale, and it makes a human being out of the eponymous hero. “The kiss of love is the first apprehension of death, the cessation of individuality. That is why it gives Siegfried such a fright,” Wagner explained while working on the composition in 1869.

At the sight of Brünnhilde’s face, Siegfried is sensually overwhelmed, even before he has recognised her gender – “laughing picture of the radiant sun”; and Brünnhilde uses the same adjective in styling the hero “Life of the earth, laughing hero”. Meeting Brünnhilde transforms the “loveliest child” Siegfried into a man, but how much or indeed how little he understands is made clear in gelotologic excess by the conflation of laughter with love, seeing and dying:

“Laughing I must love you,
laughing I will go blind,
laughing let us perish!”

“Laughing, lovely one, you awake to me:
Brünnhilde is alive, Brünnhilde is laughing!”

The resplendent ending in C major hails a new world and is the utopian moment par excellence in music: “Luminous love, laughing death!” From its rumbling shadowy opening in B flat minor to its blazing finale, the finished opera has thus risen one whole tone higher. The new couple is emphatically insistent about “Luminous love, laughing death!” This “laughing death” in the ecstatic finale becomes a shared feeling of elation in which the two characters lay part of their previous identity vocally to rest in order to give birth to the hope for a new life: a life that two individuals experience momentarily. But can anything be built upon that? Siegfried exults “Hail to the day that is gleaming around us!” with Brünnhilde for her part invoking “Night of annihilation, let your mist fall!” The union of the two lovers possesses no redemptive power beyond the moment. The rapturous moment of love can be heard in this climax, but how much opera and how much utopia – ultimately, how much play – does it attest? The process of annihilation begins in the instant of fulfilment. Can this love be institutionally trusted? Will the long-lauded sun really come up, or is it not in fact already dusk for the old gods?

If the prologue and the three evenings of the RING tetralogy are viewed as a monumental symphony in four movements, then SIEGFRIED would be the scherzo; Cosima referred to the opera as “a sort of intermezzo” while Wagner himself initially called it “the merry drama” and later in his autobiography Mein Leben a “heroic comedy” – heroisches Lustspiel, underlining once again the essential aspect of play. On the one hand we have the tangible stage play with features of a fairytale: sword forging, dragon slaying and forest bird – all of them plot elements involving dramatically effective action. On the other hand we have theatre with mythical traits: Wotan’s inquiry-filled conversations with Mime, Alberich and Erda signify a reflection upon deliverance from his original sin.

This ostensible coming-of-age story of the young Siegfried turns out to be a tragicomedy about love and violence in the search for the self. Many lessons involving all the main characters in question and answer sessions attempt to establish order and meaning in a universe that only shines brightly in the moment of ecstasy: “Luminous love, laughing death!” and thus already heralds its own demise. The Siegfried at the end of the opera unites within himself not only the different aspects of laughter. In the unity of love and death, he also spans much larger arcs: he is “superman, protagonist in a cosmogony – at the same time a fairytale figure, one who went out into the world in order to learn fear” (Richard Wagner), just as he is “buffoon, god of light, and anarchistic social revolutionary all at once” (Thomas Mann). This “all at once” is where the enduring appeal of the opera-forming promise “Luminous love, laughing death!” lies.

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