(Note: This post has been edited for clarity, and to correct omissions, as of 4:27 AM Eastern on 14 Feb.)
On an opera forum in which I sometimes participate, a discussion began on the inescapable circumstance that an opera's libretto ultimately shapes its music. Naturally, the sui generis case of Wagner (who himself wrote all his libretti) soon was broached (not by me), and I found it necessary to point out to all and sundry that in his special case it was certainly not true that the libretto shaped the music, but rather that the libretto and music mutually and, more to the point at issue, simultaneously shaped each other as when Wagner was writing his text he at all times had a sense of the "contour" of the music that would belong to the words he was writing even though he'd not composed so much as a note of that music. The discussion then veered off-topic to center on the unique case of Götterdämmerung, the culminating opera (music-drama) of Wagner's great tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. That opera is a source of some distress to me, and I thought I'd post here some of what I had to say about it.
The case of Götterdämmerung is unique in that although it's the last opera of the tetralogy, its text was the first of the four to be written, and the source of the subjects of the texts of the preceding three operas, its original incarnation (1848) being a planned "Grand Heroic Opera in Three Acts" titled Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried's Death); an opera intended to be written along ordinary operatic lines.
But two things about that grand heroic opera quickly became apparent to Wagner: first, that the events depicted in the opera required a huge amount of explanation of events that took place prior to the opening of the opera, which events Wagner would have to deal with in the text by way of drama-stopping narrative of one sort or another between the characters; and second, that ordinary operatic musical forms would be incapable of accommodating the free, alliterative verse Wagner planned finally to use (Wagner would employ for the final text an ancient poetic form called Stabreim).
Wagner solved the first problem by expanding the number of operas first to two (the second, preceding Siegfrieds Tod, was to be called Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried) which became the present Siegfried), then to four, the two additional operas (which would precede Der junge Siegfried) to be called, Siegmund and Sieglinde: The Chastisement of The Valkyrie (which became the present Die Walküre), and a prologue called, The Rape of The Rhinegold (which became the present Das Rheingold) and he solved the second by inventing what we today know as Wagnerian music-drama.
Wagner's expansion of his original three-act grand opera into a tetralogy now involved him in a reworking of the text of the original Siegfrieds Tod as much of what it contained was now dealt with in the three newly written opera texts. This Wagner duly accomplished, renaming the opera, Götterdämmerung, and late in 1852 his work on the full texts of all the Ring operas was completed.
As it turned out, however, there were several problems, to some of which Wagner chose to be willfully blind, the principal one being that Wagner's original concept had had Siegfried as its tragic hero. Now, however, as things had worked out almost behind Wagner's back and against his own will, so to speak, it was Wotan, chief of the gods and Siegfried's grandpapa, not Siegfried, who emerged as the tragic hero of the piece, Siegfried being reduced to nothing more than another pawn in the playing out of what had now become a vast cosmic drama rather than a mere socio-political morality play clothed in the raiment of ancient Nordic and Germanic myth, and played out via the operatic forms of conventional French grand opera.
Instead of rewriting Siegfrieds Tod from the ground up to reflect the altered central circumstance, however, Wagner merely removed material from it that was now dealt with in the new preceding three opera texts, patchworked in whatever new material he felt was needed to make the rewritten opera text a dramatically coherent, self-contained whole, and caulked the seams.
Big mistake, for what Wagner now ended up with in Götterdämmerung was an impossible mix of ordinary grand opera plot and characters with those worthy of true Wagnerian music-drama, and worse much worse music to match each; music Wagner didn't get around to composing until some 22 years later.
And so, on one hand, what we have today in Götterdämmerung is an overall plot just as silly and melodramatic as anything in Italian opera, the height of which melodramatic silliness is almost the whole of Act II a regressive return to the style of French grand opera, and an act beloved of TOFs (True Opera Fans; like teenage movie fans, only worse much worse), who think that act the best thing in all the Ring with music just as shallow dramatically as that in most Italian opera notwithstanding the richly complex and gorgeous sounds emanating from the orchestra pit, those sounds the product of a Wagner working at the very height of his technical powers as a musico-dramatic magician with all the prodigious musical material of the previous three Ring music-dramas from which to draw on (not to speak of having under his belt both Tristan and Meistersinger), faking it music-drama-wise.
And we won't even speak of the rank, melodramatic Italian opera silliness of the opening Act I episode in the Hall of The Gibichungs, complete with its stiff, four-square music, and a cringe-inducing, blood-curdlingly vulgar drinking song that could have been written by a Verdi at his most early-opera vulgar. And most of all we won't speak of a Siegfried who, far from being a tragic hero, now comes off as, at best, an innocent and not-too-bright dupe, and at worst, a callow, bullying, adolescent dummy, either of which gives us pause to wonder what it was Brünnhilde could ever have seen in him (a Brünnhilde whom Wagner envisioned initially as the self-sacrificing redeemer of the world in Götterdämmerung; a vision he failed ultimately to realize in the finished work, turning her instead into a sort of world-redeemer by circumstance).
In short, Wagner seriously screwed the pooch in Götterdämmerung, first, by losing sight of the vast cosmic drama he ultimately ended up creating in writing the tetralogy; then by stubbornly refusing to recognize that an alteration of his original and much beloved concept of a Siegfried who is, as he rightly is in Siegfried, a naive, ignorant-of-fear, tragic "free hero" was required, and by further stubbornly refusing to admit, even to himself, that that refusal involved him in a fundamental contradiction even though he himself had transformed his tragic free hero into nothing more than a stock operatic character, and an annoying, simpleminded, hapless pawn into the bargain. Brünnhilde's final peroration eulogizing Siegfried as the matchless hero is, to not put too fine a point on the matter, a vast bad joke, and Götterdämmerung, dramatically speaking, in substantial part no less a "shabby little shocker" than Tosca.
All of which is not to say, on the other hand, that Götterdämmerung is absent its genuine and splendid Wagnerian music-drama stretches: stretches such as the opera's great prologue (i.e., the Norns scene through the so-called "Siegfried's Rhine Journey"); Hagen's chilling and character-revealing tremendous Act I monologue, the so-called "Hagen's Watch"; the emotion-charged Act I colloquy between Brünnhilde and her sister Valkyrie, Waltraute; the wonderfully creepy and enormously effective Act II opening colloquy between Hagen and his (in-the-flesh, or dreamt, or hallucinated) papa, Alberich; the profoundly moving Act III episode of Siegfried's death and funeral procession the music for which is among the most emotionally and dramatically powerful Wagner ever wrote; and the overwhelming close of Götterdämmerung, the culmination of the entire tetralogy, the so-called "Immolation Scene," the music of which is so brilliantly conceived and written that we all but forget no, make that totally forget all the melodramatic nonsense that's preceded it in Götterdämmerung that made this music-drama fall significantly short of being the inevitable cosmic denouement the tetralogy requires, and experience that close, both as the close of Götterdämmerung and the close of the entire tetralogy, with all the force, power, and profound poetic-dramatic effect Wagner intended and the tetralogy deserves.
That Wagner didn't in the end do even willfully refused to recognize what needed to be done with Götterdämmerung to make it what it should have been in the context of the full tetralogy is due, I think, his own almost unimaginable hubris, and a complex of crushing life circumstances that would have utterly destroyed any lesser mortal.
Too bad. Wagner's lapse and the world's loss. But for all the overflowing and substantial riches he did give us, we cannot help but forgive him.