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“Brünnhilde with her horse”, by Arthur Rackham, 1910

Wagner’s personality was in many ways so monstrous that it requires an imaginative effort to place him among the ranks of the progressives in his attitude to women. How can a composer often lazily decried as a proto-Nazi deserve to be seen as an early feminist? The director Willy Decker, whose 2001 production of The Ring cycle has just been re-presented at the Semper Opera House in Dresden, thinks that such an argument can be made. The outstanding feature of this revival was the authoritative performance of the score given by Christian Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle; but high praise is also due to a series of thought-provoking essays in the programmes written by the director, which deserve wider exposure to an English-speaking audience.

For Decker, all that comes into existence at the beginning of the tetralogy and is destroyed at its conclusion is bookended by the natural sounds — womb-like vibrations and undulating rhythms — of the eternal feminine. Into this gentle inertia there irrupts the male principle as the expression of the will to power — through Alberich’s theft of the Rheingold (and, as Decker might also have mentioned, by his alter ego the “Licht-alberich” Wotan’s despoliation of the world ash tree) — with violent and ultimately apocalyptic consequences. There is nothing radical in Wagner having envisaged an aboriginal female mystery: the idea is derived from (though older than) Greek mythology and had been previously expressed in German literature in the “Mütter” of Faust Part 2. Decker, however, takes it a stage further: for him the whole cosmos is the earth goddess Erda’s dream. During the prelude of Das Rheingold, when consciousness dawns and subject and object are for the first time separated, she draws open the curtain before our eyes. Although Wagner’s libretto makes clear that her knowledge will come to fail her, at the end of Götterdämmerung it is she who (as Decker sees it) bears the new, redeemed earth of which the music sings, so that her dream may begin once more. 

In his essays, Decker does not equivocate, though fortunately the production itself is more ambiguous: for him, the purity of the feminine and the guilt of the masculine are a Grundthema in The Ring, as in much of Wagner’s work. The cycle thus portrays the bitter struggle between the two principles of contrasting gender; it is man’s persistent aggression towards woman that hurls them both into catastrophe. Women are typically no more than commodified victims: Freia, for example, is exploited by her fellow gods, Sieglinde by her husband, Gutrune by her brothers. (Decker gives us an implausible but satisfying expression of girl power near the end by having Gutrune kill Hagen, as a payback for his previous incestuous attentions.) It is persistent male transgression which sickens the world.

True as some of this is, any theory of The Ring has to make sense of its three principal characters: Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried, who are all imagined by Wagner in the grandest possible terms. It could never be right to reduce Wotan to the role of a participant in a game of sexual politics, on however large a scale. This supreme figure has many other facets: he is for example a monarch who rages Lear-like against a half-willed loss of power, and a father who grieves at the necessity of abandoning his beloved (male) child Siegmund. These noble and tragic aspects of his nature largely fall outside Decker’s conception, although his novel direction of Siegfried’s funeral music in Götterdämmerung as specifically Wotan’s outsized grieving for his murdered grandson is moving and convincing.

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