I just finished seeing the latest San Francisco Opera installment of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Siegfried. I've seen it live five or six times in my life now, and feel that my experience level has reached the Barely-Dangerous stage, though nowhere near the Very-Dangerous stage addict who sat next to me once who'd seen it 47 times. So, now that I'm an obstreperous junior at Wagner Citadel U, my return visits to class are beginning to saddle me with ever-so-ponderable questions. Niebelungenfragen, to use the High German term. So here's the story:
Siegfried is brought up from babyhood by the loser/wacko dwarf Mime, who fails to convince him that he's both his father and mother. Nevertheless, MomDad does convince Siegfried to follow him into the woods to kill a dragon. Actually, however, this dragon is not a dragon, but the last of the earth's giants, Fafner, who owns a magic helmet, the Tarnhelm, that can change him into whatever he likes. He chose permanent dragonhood, and spends most of his time sleeping in a cave, emerging to eat someone every now and then.
First question: Does Fafner ever get tired wearing that tiny helmet? Is that why he stays in the cave, so no one will know what he's doing in there with his Tarnhelm? Perhaps he amuses himself by changing into pixies or Barbie dolls every now and then, or maybe Wagner himself (with, I hope, numerous facial improvements). Or maybe a DVD player, complete with a disk of WALL-E so he can watch himself collect trash. That must be so, because in this production when Siegfried turned up at his cave, he emerged as a trash compactor, but without the tarnhelm on top.
Which brings me to the second question: While Siegfried waits for the trash compactor, he is amused by a bird that flutters around, chirpablurping. When he kills Fafner, by somehow knowing that the giant's heart is a crenulated tube on the side of the compactor, he accidentally tastes Fafner's dragon blood and can understand the bird. She reveals to him some vital facts, without which he'd be a babe in the woods (again), and probably dead. Such as: that Mime wants to kill him with toxic Rhinebrine, that the Tarnhelm can turn him too into a trash compactor or anything else, that there's a powerful Ring among Fafner's trash, that there's an older babe, up on a rock burning, with desire to meet him, etc.
WHO IS THIS BIRD WORKING FOR? No one seems to care about answering this dire concern, according to my preliminary research. All experts say is that the bird is part of "the family of nature" items, like the Rhine Maidens, or Erda (the Earth Mother), the Rainbow, and others. The bird can't be working for Wotan, the god who wants Siegfried to find Brunnhilde–no way. Wotan's not allowed to interfere with Siegfried's adventures, even by taking the time to have his ravens train a cousin to talk. If he does so, his bitch of a wife will get angry. And where did this bird get all the info? She's certainly the smartest guy in the room, except for the Mr. 47 I met earlier.
So what's going on here? Perhaps the bird's working for Wagner. (Or, perhaps, Wagner's.) See, Siegfried's supposed to be utterly without fear (at least until like Wotan, he meets with the weird vibes that the opposite sex sends out)–and without knowledge. The babe-in-the-woods thing again. Perhaps the bird is an awkward way to get the details of the next plot items conveyed to Siegfried, I don't know. Then again, since she's closely associated with them, she might be the strike-force arm of the otherwise ineffectual Murmurs lurking about everywhere in the scene.
In any case, if I were Siegfried, I'd take that there Tarnhelm, change myself into Boy Bird, hop into the nest with Girl Bird, like Wotan did to Erda, and find out who was trying to run my life. Better yet … How could I link in to that nifty info pipeline?
One final question raised by this third course in the Wagner Citadel U program. When Siegfried finally gets to the other babe, who's been sleeping on a rock for 18 years with no bedsores, and removes her helmet, why doesn't a ton of hair fall out? It's been growing all this time! Instead, in this production, she still has her cute bob she started with when Wotan put her to sleep by singing to her for a long time.
What a missed opportunity! I hope an enterprising producer, perhaps Disney, will see the growth potential in this fact of nature, and combine bits of Pelléas and Mélisande with Rapunzel in Siegfried's babe-discovery scene. This would unite the French and German schools of fantasy.
What I'd do, given Siegfried's can-do and practical nature is this: During the 25 minutes in which the two of them are belting their hearts out, Siegfried could slowly cut off Brünnhilde's hair. Symbolic, huh? And while they continue to lend passionate vocalizations to what are essentially nonsense syllables throughout the scene, Siegfried and Brünnhilde could together be weaving the hair into something more useful. So that in the prelude to the next opera, when he inexplicably leaves his babe alone again, with the lame excuse he's going off to do unspecified "deeds," he could sing instead:
"Thanks for the hair, Brunny, I'm taking this rope to go catch me some bear!"