Brünnhilde the überfeminist

Brünnhilde the überfeminist

Just finished watching Patrice ChéreauPierre Boulez Der Ring DVD boxset (Toronto Public Library has it) and although there are plenty of interesting female characters, Brünnhilde stands out as arguably the most important agent in the entire Ring.

In a key scene mid-way through the Ring, she is about to be demoted from a divinity to a woman – to be punished by being clearly sexed and by moving from a state where she can do anything to a state where she will be enslaved by love for the first man who shows interest in her. Later this harsh punishment gets partly amended but she still has to go through a state of passivity and let herself be found and awaken by a hero, though it will be a hero of her choice.  In a significant way, everything that happens from the Walküre on is a process of gendering Brünnhilde, which takes place along with the other main unfolding, the decline of the gods and the god-sanctioned order of the universe. Like any other woman, Brünnhilde de Beauvoir wasn’t born a woman but needs to learn how to become one.  Hint: things don’t go that well.

After of bit of research, it turned out that there are a number of feminist and Brünnhilde-centred stagings of the Ring, and not a small amount was written along these lines. The Copenhagen Ring is among the best known womanist Rings. Earlier this year, Francesca Zambello did a decidedly feminist Die Walkure at the San Francisco Opera. One of the few other women who ever staged the Ring was the East- and West-German theatre director Ruth Berghaus, who worked with the Berliner Ensemble and Bertolt Brecht. (My search for any surviving recordings of her work didn’t bear any fruit, but I’m sure there must be something somewhere? There’s plenty of photography and studies, interviews and newspaper reviews, luckily.) The Chéreau ring was also very feminist: his decision to dress the gods in the late nineteenth-century haute bourgeoisie clothes and narrow their world down to that of a family unit had a lot to do with it.

Off to Mark Poster‘s article ‘What does Wotan want’, and a re-read of Žižek‘s musings on Wagner in Opera’s Second Death… Brünnhilde talk to be continued.

6 thoughts on “Brünnhilde the überfeminist

  1. I could see a Brünnhilde-centred Ring being immensely more satisfying than a Siegfried-centred one, largely because Siegfried is such a washout as a protagonist.

    Your reading of Brünnhilde’s transformation into a gendered being is a fascinating one and one I will have to think on further. I find myself wondering if her final act of self-sacrifice can be seen as a consummation of femininity (since that is often womanhood’s role, especially in opera) or rather the culmination of a more heroic arc, especially as compared with Siegfried’s rather ignominious death. Siegfried gets the to-do and the funeral march set piece, but Brünnhilde’s story in Gotterdammerung makes much more sense than his does as the story of a heroic protagonist. You could even say the same about Sieglinde as compared with Siegmund, who doesn’t do much but is rather passively struck down by fate.

    The Ring is a gift to people who enjoy looking for subtexts. But I don’t think there’s anything particularly “sub” about a feminist reading.

  2. Yes, the male heroes are rather lucklustre in Wagner. Zizek described them somewhere as sort of undead zombies, constantly and aimlessly searching, propelled by external forces or their own instincts. There’s some of that in Parsifal too.

    Siegfrid in Chereau’s production was played pitch-perfectly by Manfred Jung as a dumb lad who never really catches up with the events, even though people keep explaining to him at every juncture. The humiliation with Hagen and the forgetfulness that Wagner had in store for him in the final act was, tee hee, almost sadistic.

    Although there are tons of things to disagree regarding his Wagner-ama, Zizek points out another useful distinction: that Wagner often genders the two types of knowledge that his characters possess. So the Verstand is “active intellect, the power of actively seizing and deciding by means of which we assert ourselves as fully autonomous subjects” and the Vernunft (reason or wisdom) is an intellect’s yielding to the highest power — lending oneself to its workings like an artist would to a divine inspiration, a state of passivity before the awesomeness of truth. So when I look at Erda, who is “the wisest of all since times immemorial”, she is rather passive and sleeps good chunk of the time. There are also the Nords in the final act who weave the threads of life, but more like chroniclers than masters. Then there’s Fricka, of course, a very puzzling goddess of Wifehood and Nagging who, although a winner in a major metaphysical dispute with Wotan, disappears from the scene entirely early on in the Walkure.

    But then there’s Brünhilde, who defies any such categorization. Seriously, Brünnhilde IS Der Ring. She pushes the action when Wotan stalls, and although is indeed put to sleep as punishment, she is still present as the purpose of events. At the end of the Gotterdammerung, she sums up WTF This Was All About, and she rubs it in for Wotan in some lines.

    I thought about the final scene, yes. There is a bit of a Liebestod in that final double death scene, granted. But I see it more like “Oh let’s do what needs to be done. Is it down to me again? Again? All right then. Observe and learn. And if after this I get to see Siegfrid in the underworld, all the better.”

  3. Indeed your idea of Brünhilde’s (btw: her name means ‘fighting in armor’) transformation into a gendered being is fascinating, and probably it’s one of the mesmerizing aspects of Wagner’s Ring that one can apparently find so much subtext in it. Some of this subtext might be according to Wagner’s biography. Quite a lot of women played key roles in his life: he was married to Minna Planer and Cosima von Bülow and he had numerous affairs – the most known one with Mathilde Wesendonck; an affair that somehow remained unfulfilled. Thus Mathilde and the longing for love that conquers all might have been the model for “Tristan and *Isolde*”, and in his “Ring” he inter alia mirrors the woman giving unconditional love whilst facing her own doom and being faced with the hero whose principal duty it is to carry on unwaveringly. On the first page of the Walküre-overture Wagner wrote “G.S.M. – Gesegnet sei Mathilde” – blessed be Mathilde… .
    Though Wagner wrote the libretto to his operas his text sources originate from sagas. Consequently the “original” subtext in his oeuvre is more in his music (e.g. the use of the various Leitmotifs ) than in his texts.

  4. (Yes… despite all its metaphysical heights, Tristan und Isolde is about a skirt Wagner couldn’t have.🙂 If we want to be crass about it. And many people have described the first couple’s musical interruption by Brangaene’s scream as coitus interruptus, which then later in the Liebestod gets completed.)

    Bergerchef, do tell more about the leitmotifs. I could follow only the most recognizable ones, for instance the ride of the Valkuries motif which re-emerges at some unexpected points, and at the end when Brünnhilde calls Grane for the very last time.

  5. I would love to but I am afraid I have neither the time nor really the appropriate tools to do that via the internet. (Btw: I liked the San Diego edu-podcasts of the Rosenkavalier’s leitmotifs you made aware of; but though I am more fond of Strauss than of Wagner I do not think Strauss did the leitmotifs better. He certainly did them more refined but well: he was more a 20th century composer.)

    Of course Wagner often weaves and twists his leitmotifs and this makes decryption a bit complicated since the music-subtext often is a blend of the various leitmotifs.
    In the scene you refer to above at least six leitmotifs are used. It starts with fate (Schicksal) and contract (Vertrag), the latter being quite accentuated in the very beginning (0:22-0:30). Then Loge, fire (Feuerzauber / Waberlohe), and farewell (Wotans Scheidegruss) follow and blend.
    In the end, the Siegfried-motif is highlighted. It starts at 2:56 (right after Wotan finishes the sentence: „Whosoever fears the tip of my spear shall never pass through that fire! “) and lasts until 3:20.
    Thereby Wagner already refers to the next part of the Ring and to Brünhild’s „reveille“.

    There is a German website that covers almost all leitmotifs and probably even more than there are😉 : http://www.richard-wagner-werkstatt.com/ring/.
    It shows the (reduced) score as well but – unfortunately – the audio files were recorded with a keyboard and this is hard to bear😦 . Click on the motif-names on the page: „Die Leitmotive im Ring des Nibelungen“ and you will see the piano score. The color of the ring – yellow = Rheingold, green = Walküre, blue = Siegfried and red = Götterdämmerung – indicates where each motif is used.

    There is an English version by Larry Brown, too called „Notes to the Ring“ : http://www.rwagner.net/contrib/lb/e-index.html . On both pages, things might be a bit oversimplified but with regard to the dense topic I think both sites are worth a visit.

    Have fun!

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