Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Rape of Brunnhilde

I came to Houston this weekend to see a new production of the opera Siegfried by the Houston Grand Opera. It was stunning – breathtaking – especially the final act, when Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) is awakened by Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris).

I have written before about my fascination with Wagner’s fascination with the subjugation of women (Musings on Love and Freedom in the Ring Cycle; Hail, Isolde). It comes up again and again in the Ring Cycle and Tristan und Isolde: women are forced to marry men against their will, resulting in the repeated rape and slavery of the woman.

I don’t see any social commentary in this – these are tales of Norse gods and Celtic healer-princesses, not radio talk show hosts – and I don’t see anything of interest on the more general topic of free will. This obsession with female subjugation is more in line with Wagner’s [lesser] interest in incest (twins; an aunt and her nephew). It seems to be emerging from some moral ambiguity in Wagner’s psyche, and as I’ve written before, it feels like an itch he has to keep scratching.

In the production I saw tonight, Goerke’s voice was so inhumanly glorious that I lost myself in it for a while: I entered a state of concentration where I absorbed everything and can remember it perfectly, but at the time I had no conscious thought. When I emerged, I had the clearest sense that this was a woman who was desperately trying to stop a man from having sex with her. (And her last line in the opera, as she succumbs to Siegfried's sexual advances, is, “Laughter in death!”)

I don’t want to do some analysis based on rereading the libretto; what I’m writing about is an emotional reaction.

In bad productions of Siegfried, the final act can drag terribly. There must be 45 minutes of Brunnhilde waking up and meeting Siegfried. In most productions I’ve seen, Brunnhilde is coquettish, or needs some time to make up her mind. In this production, she is fighting him off. But I’d like to see a production that dealt with the matter even more blatantly: Wotan has magically forced her to become the slave of any man who can break through the fire that surrounds her. She fights against that, appealing to Siegfried to not force her. When he refuses, she must succumb. This should be a brutal scene: he should manhandle her; he should, against her will, remove enough of her clothing to be disturbing; she should become humiliated; and her final acceptance should be Stepford-wifish, or something along those lines.

That would make Gotterdammerung make more sense. Brunnhilde cheated in her subjugation: she knew that her nephew Siegfried would be the one to find her, and welcomed it. So when she succumbed to loving Siegfried, Siegfried quickly set off on a new quest, leaving her alone, and later was tricked into transferring the subjugation to another man who she truly loathed.

I don’t particularly like Wagner’s repeated plot lines of female subjugation, but I’d like to see a production that handles it head-on - that does it justice.

Correction: This is not a new production. It was first performed in 2007-2008 for the Palau de les Arts Reina SofĂ­a in Valencia, Spain.