The concluding scene of Wagner’s four-opera slog through Norse mythology ends with the Immolation Scene. Its action is described below taken from the Wikipedia article on the opera. Depending on your taste the cycle is one of art’s greatest achievements or it is a vast Sahara dotted with lush oases. I am of the latter persuasion. But there is no disputing the beauty of this final scene. Ironically everything ends similarly to the way things were before the start of the cycle. Wotan’s overpriced digs are gone and the Rhinemaidens have their gold back. Everybody else is dead.

Brünnhilde in an apostrophe addresses Wotan, the ruler of oaths and laws, and proclaims that the death of the free hero Siegfried has atoned for the god’s guilt; renouncing and overcoming through the might of grieving love the power of the ring, she bequeaths it to the Rhinemaidens, who are to claim it from her own ashes after fire has cleansed it of its curse, and declares that Wotan can finally truly rest in peace (“Mein Erbe nun nehm’ ich zu eigen”). Brünnhilde then lights the funeral pyre with a firebrand and with “anxiously longed-for tidings” sends Wotan’s ravens home to command Loge, the god of fire that still burns on her rock, to fly to Walhalla and set it on fire (“Fliegt heim, ihr Raben!”). After a final eulogy to the dead hero, Brünnhilde, willing to be reunited with her love, mounts her horse Grane and as a Valkyrie rides into the flames, joining Siegfried in death.

A sequence of leitmotifs portray the fire flaring up, and the hall of the Gibichungs catching fire and collapsing. The Rhine overflows its banks, quenching the flames, and the Rhinemaidens swim in to claim the ring. Hagen in a frenzy tries at the last moment to stop them and seize the ring for himself, but they drag him into the depths and drown him (“Zurück vom Ring!”), the theme of the curse of the ring being then heard for the last time. As they celebrate the return of the Rhinegold to their river and the breaking of its curse, a red glow spreads through the sky. The surviving Gibichungs now see the interior of Walhalla with gods and heroes visible as described by Waltraute in Act I, Scene 3. A new fire flares up around the Hall of the Gods, hiding it from sight; the gods are consumed in flames and the curtain falls. At the very end of the work, there emerges the sound of the Liebeserlösung motive – the redemption-through-love leitmotif.

Below are two versions of the scene. The first is a video recorded at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1992. Ann Evans is Brünnhilde in a production directed by Harry Kupfer and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Kupfer has done his best to confuse the viewer. I can’t understand anything that’s going on in this scene. Barenboim’s conducting is fine until you listen to the same scene conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.

In the audio linked below the video Furtwängler conducts the La Scala Orchestra in a 1950 performance. The great soprano Kirstin Flagstad is Brünnhilde. Even at this late stage of her career, she is still a marvel. Furtwängler was the greatest conductor of the core German repertory (Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, etc). His interpretation of these masters blows away everyone else. Barenboim’s work seems tepid by comparison. Furtwängler’s uncanny ability to realize the full emotional core of what he conducted was astounding. If there is such a thing as a conductor of genius, Furtwängler was the man.

Flagstad Immolation Scene Furtwängler