Discover more from Leidmotief | Leitmotif
Wotan's rebellious daughter
Director Andreas Homoki in conversation with Werner Hintze
Die Walküre is the only Wagner opera to have the name of a female character in its title. Can we infer from this that there is something special about this piece?
Actually, this is only logical, since it is customary to name a piece after the central character. And in this case it is Brünnhilde, Wotan's daughter and the first of the Valkyries, whose development and actions have decisive consequences for the whole further course of the tetralogy. On the other hand, one would not be wrong to take this title as an indication that this is a work in which women play a particularly important role.
Before we go into further detail: What is a Valkyrie?
The Valkyries are Wotan's daughters, charged with bringing heroes who have fallen in battle, if he deems them worthy, to Valhalla. Apart from Brünnhilde, there are eight other Valkyries, so that the cast list of the piece lists no fewer than eleven named female characters. That is an absolute record for Wagner. But even if we leave aside Brünnhilde's sisters, who form a hardly individualized group, there still remain three great and very differentiated female figures who characterize this piece and make it something special in Wagner's oeuvre. Of course, it must also be said that Wagner's work is full of great, self-confident and self-determined female figures. It is all the more remarkable that he repeatedly places strong women at the center of attention, as his material almost consistently unfolds against the backdrop of brutally patriarchal conditions.
According to a widely held view, Wagner's works propagate a reactionary 19th-century image of women....
... yes, one often hears something like that. But when I look at his works, I cannot find anything that justifies this opinion. Of course Wagner thinks like a person of the 19th century. After all, it would be absurd to expect anything else. But in this respect, too, he has remained the subversive who literally went to the barricades for a better world in Dresden in his day: with his female figures, he goes far beyond what was the general consensus in his time. One only has to hold any of his characters next to the ideal of femininity, as expressed in the trivial literature popular at the time, to see this immediately. Instead of celebrating modesty with a life between children, kitchen and church, Wagner invents characters who resist the constraint...
... but they almost always fail tragically...
... which, however, does not devalue their position. In all great tragedies since antiquity the heroes fail in the end, but this shows that the conditions are inhuman, that therefore the world must be arranged differently. Wagner does not want to resign himself to these conditions. And neither do the women in his works.
Is that true for all three great female roles in this piece? Also for Fricka?
Absolutely. We encounter Wotan's wife as a clever and self-confident woman who doesn't take any shit from her husband. She cannot prevent him from cheating on her with other women, and she has given up all hope of winning him back, which she had when Valhalla was planned and built. But she does not accept the subordinate role assigned to her and does what she can to assert herself against the overpowering father of the house. She can do this because, as we see in the great confrontation in the second act, she is intellectually more than a match for Wotan.
What is this confrontation about?
Wotan has had to pay the giants who built him the castle with the ring he stole from Alberich. However, he knows that this piece of jewelry, which gives the owner immense power, can become very dangerous. From Fafner, who owns the ring at the moment, there is no danger, because it is enough for him to lie as a giant worm on the gold treasure to which the ring belongs. But if Alberich gets the ring back, the gods and the whole world are in greatest danger. Now Wotan cannot simply steal the ring, because it has come to Fafner through a contract, which Wotan cannot break, because his world order is based on contracts. Therefore, he has the idea to father Siegmund, whom he raises to be an anarchist and despiser of all rules and orders, so that he kills Fafner of his own accord and gives the ring to his father. Fricka, to whom he has revealed this plan - by the way, in an outrageously condescending way - immediately discovers the sore spot that Wotan has successfully suppressed until then: If he protects Siegmund, incites him to fight Fafner and also provides him with the necessary weapon, it is as good as if he kills Fafner himself and steals the ring. Wotan must realize that she is right and give up his plan.
Why is she doing this? What does she have against Siegmund?
She is a politician who does what her job is. She is responsible for upholding the laws of marriage, which regulate an essential area of human coexistence. Wotan assumes the right to have sympathy for the people, especially for the rebels who revolt against the inhuman and loveless order. Fricka knows only her laws. And enforces them mercilessly but, by the way, not unjustly. According to these laws, Siegmund has committed two crimes that can only be atoned for by death: Adultery and incest. Wotan tries to contradict her by pointing to the power of love: he does not consider a marriage made without love to be binding, and the love that two people feel for each other he always considers worth protecting, no matter what the circumstances. For Fricka, this is quite unacceptable. Her only interest is to preserve the existing order, and there is no place for such "sentimentalities". Wotan, on the other hand, is caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, he too is interested in preserving order, but on the other hand, he does not want to (and cannot) give up the love that continually undermines it. At this point Fricka intervenes and finally asserts herself.
Why doesn't Fricka actually have children?
In the play's system, which assumes the irresolvable contradiction of love and power, marriage, sealed by an oath and secured by a law, belongs to the side of power. (In Hunding's house, one sees that it can be a prison.) But power is barren. Therefore, no children result from the loveless marriage of Fricka and Wotan, but from the unlawful, free love of Siegmund and Sieglinde.
Can Fricka's behavior not also be explained by the pain of her unhappy marriage, which denies her motherhood?
This plays an essential role for the psychological interpretation of the character. These are two explanations of her actions that are by no means mutually exclusive. They are two levels of the character that belong together and are very finely tuned to each other by Wagner, who proves to be a brilliant dramatist precisely in such points. A purely psychological explanation would amount to saying that all would be well with the world if Wotan were kinder or Fricka less demanding. The purely political would make Fricka a heartless monster. Only the two together illuminate the character in a way that brings out both her greatness and her tragedy.
Sieglinde's attitude to her husband is quite different. She silently endures life next to Hunding and hopes for the hero who will deliver her from her fate. This is pretty close to the image of women we find in Biedermeier kitsch literature, isn't it?
Only at a superficial glance. Even a second glance shows that she has no choice at all. In the world that the play shows, she cannot simply flee, after all. A woman who runs through the world without male support would hardly survive for long. So she has to tolerate her fate, but she does not accept it as normal. She, too, is Wotan's child and has been raised by him to be a rebel. As soon as she recognizes in Siegmund the one with whom she can escape the unbearable life, she acts decisively, supports him and fights together with him for her love. Siegmund, for his part, is able to become her liberator because, as a born rebel, he does not accept this woman's fate as normal and overturns all the rules he has recognized as inhuman. As an aside, it should be noted that Hunding is not a villain who gets his kicks from humiliating women. He is a man of honor who behaves exactly as is normal in his world. It doesn't even occur to him to question that, and that is certainly true of all the other men and most of the women around him. The idea that there could be such a thing as love between spouses is certainly completely foreign to him. That is why, after discovering the adultery, he turns to Fricka, the guardian of the law, instead of trying to win back his wife by behaving more lovingly.
Siegmund, on the other hand, seems to be the ideal of a man.
This is a singular figure in Wagner's oeuvre: a man conceived without qualification as a sympathetic figure, whose sincerity, capacity for love, tenderness and strength are not clouded by any contradiction. This is possible because he grew up outside civilization, far from its negative influences, and was raised by Wotan, who gave him his best qualities and convictions.
But he is a killer...
In this world, all men are. And we also learn who is to blame for this: Wotan himself, who has incited the men to a general war of all against all, in order to get himself the soldiers for his war against Alberich. Nevertheless, Siegmund has retained the capacity for love that he inherited from Wotan. In this world, which we must think of as populated by nothing but Hundings, he is the only man capable of dealing humanely with a woman, and thus a utopian figure. And because there is love between him and Sieglinde, their relationship is not barren.
The center of the piece is the big scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde, in which he summarizes what has happened so far in a long narrative and describes his situation. These long passages are somewhat notorious. Eduard Hanslick remarked in his galling way that as soon as even the tip of Wotan's spear emerges from the scenery, half an hour of the most emphatic boredom is guaranteed. With this he probably spoke from the heart of many viewers who complain about the long passages that stop everything and recapitulate what one already knows if one has followed the plot so far. How to avoid the "noble boredom" that so often results from this?
I must confess that I don't see the problem at all. At least in this play, after all, there is only one long narrative, and it brings a great deal of information that is new to the viewer. But more importantly, this is not simply a matter of providing information to the audience so that they can be updated. Rather, it is a dialogue between Wotan and Brünnhilde, even though she contributes little verbally. But it is all the more important to make clearly visible on stage how her silence, her listening, her gestures influence Wotan's narration. If one studies the score closely, one sees that Wagner took great pains to make audible and visible at every moment how the interaction of the two characters unfolds. This has resulted in a scene that is very poignant because it sums up the entire problem of the piece in the dialogue of the two main characters. I have to say that I didn't perceive it that way before either, but in working at this production I see more and more how much theatrical potential there is in this scene, which too often plays out so statically and with virtually no relationship between the two protagonists.
Another dramatist might have given Wotan a monologue....
This would have been unthinkable for Wagner. His theater is always based on dialogue, even when the scene is dominated by one character as it is here. But it is of central importance for the whole piece that Wotan entrusts himself completely to his daughter and thus in a certain way also hands himself over. Only in this way it becomes understandable that his seemingly so unloving behavior towards his children is forced, and only in this way his tremendous anger towards Brünnhilde becomes understandable when she seems to have betrayed him. And above all, only in this way does it become understandable that Brünnhilde has understood him, but draws different consequences than he had hoped: when, at Wotan's command, she announces Siegmund's death, and is amazed to see that Sieglinde is more important to him than all the promises of a blissful life in Valhalla, she undergoes a transformation and, surprisingly for herself, comes to the conviction that in the conflict of love and power, love must always win the day. Like Antigone - who was undoubtedly an important point of reference for the conception of this character - she rebels against the inhuman coldness of power and opposes it with the warmth of love. Unlike Antigone, however, she believes that in doing so she is acting against the interest of the ruler but in the interest of her father, because she has not yet grasped the true extent of Wotan's dilemma. Only in the final confrontation with her father does she understand that he cannot act otherwise, just as she had no choice but to oppose his command. Thus it becomes possible for her to accept the punishment, that is, to give up her divine status and to become a human being. And as a loving human being, she is finally able to bring about the resolution of all entanglements and open the way to a perhaps better future.