Operas are remembered for their music, but characters and plots have also had a great part in the success of one opera or the failure of another.
It was for the moral or rather immoral standing of Violetta Valéry that La traviata was booed at its première and Tosca was rejected by the critics as being a “sordid and disgusting” story!
For this reason, reading librettos especially those from the nineteenth century can not only lead to a better understanding of melodrama, but to an insight into the social make-up of the time and of the country in which the genre was born and attained its greatest achievements — Italy.
Opera was indeed the common cultural denominator of an Italian society that could not yet rely on schooling and books for communicating to all its members those values that the establishment considered indispensable to homogenise the newly unified Italian people.
Opera was, in fact, enjoyable and enjoyed by a large part of the population – from intellectuals and rich bourgeois to artisans and city workers and also to country people – thanks to the itinerant singers and actors of the so–called 'theatre in the stable'.
Of the many possible points that could be investigated, I have chosen here to look at the image that opera offers of women.
This image is very consistent: women, in the Italian operas of the nineteenth century, suffer, cry and die, and all for only one reason: Love.
This is only true for opera seria, of course, because opera buffa, by definition, could not have tragic deaths and was always compelled to have a happy ending, normally the marriage of the protagonists.
Love is, for women, the driving force and the power that determines their behaviour, their life, their death. On the operatic stage the heroines cry, despair, die for the impossibility of their love, for marriages wanted but hindered, for unions hated but imposed, for jealousy, for betrayals—real or imagined.
Though Romanticism in the Arts and in Literature recognises women as passionate beings par excellence, the manifestation of passion is allowed solely within the limits of what is socially acceptable. And paradoxically this approval is granted only when such passions are denied. In other words, a woman is “more of a woman” when passionately in love, but if she insists on fulfilling her desires, she will be punished.
The nineteenth century bourgeoisie protected the patriarchal family as the instrument for strengthening its social power through the accumulation of assets and a system of inheritance through the male line. The female members of society were restricted in the role of ‘suppliers of heirs’, with all the limits and social controls that this role implied. Every woman was ‘educated’ to pursue her sole object of fulfilment: a convenient marriage, 'the crowning of her dreams', followed by the birth of many children, preferably sons.
Any attempt to assert herself outside this imposed path would bring the woman to her demise, either through social ostracism or, as in the exemplary literature and theatre, death.
Through the grievous representation of this sad and ineluctable destiny, the operas of the last century accomplished their duty of catharsis and example.
Although the rich bourgeois male let himself be moved by the ‘redemption’ and death of Violetta, he could regret, along with Germont père, similar hard decisions made for the sake of his family’s integrity and good name.
At his side, his wife or daughter or sister could see with her own tearful eyes to which horrible fate a woman can be driven by an unsuitable love, by an insane jealousy or, worst of all sins, by adultery.
Pure or sinful, exalted or despised, love is always the driving force of melodrama’s heroines. Everything depends on it: happiness when approved and requited, torment and life itself when rejected or condemned.
Since approval or condemnation, requital or rejection are in the hands of men, the male is the real protagonist of opera. It is he who decides, acts, and shapes the events, although from the titles – Norma, Lucia di Lammermour, La traviata, etc – it may seem to be the contrary.
The same thing happened in real life: man paid homage to the woman by kissing her hand, opening doors for her and even kneeling in front of her. She was called the “queen of the house”, the “angel of the hearth”, “prima donna”, “divina”; she was “revered” and “adored”, her “desires were orders”, but, in fact, she was not recognised as capable of making any decisions or taking any actions, not even with regard to her own life.
The heroine of the opera, nevertheless, is ready to sacrifice all – family, honour, her own physical and mental integrity – for the love of a man who does not understand her, betrays her or is ready to leave and even kill her at any faint suspect of infidelity on her part. This man is also in love, sometimes, but never in such an exclusive way; other feelings and issues hold an important place in the man’s life: patriotism, vengeance, thirst for power and glory, honour, duty. Furthermore, his is often a short-term love; inconstant and fickle much more than a woman is, he soon forgets promises and oaths, commitments and responsibilities: -
In Norma, Pollione, the Roman proconsul in Gaul, has fallen in love with the young priestess Adalgisa, and for her is ready to forget and abandon Norma, the high priestess, and the two children he fathered.
In Madame Butterfly, Pinkerton from the beginning makes promises he knows he will never keep and thoughtlessly deserts the sweet Cio Cio San he married under the same terms he rented the house, for 99 years but with only a few days’ notice on his part to break free.
In Rigoletto, the philandering Duke of Mantua causes tears and death with his brief passions, and he is the one singing “La donna è mobile”!
Furthermore, and above all, men’s love is extremely fragile: the shadow of a suspect and they are ready to repudiate, curse and kill. Where women need irrefutable evidence – and they still continue to love the one who betrays them – men change from love to hatred at the first minimal doubt.
All protests of innocence are useless against a handkerchief deceitfully stolen and some malicious insinuations: Otello insults and strikes in public his innocent wife and later kills her.
Elvino, in the Sonnambula, believes immediately in Amina unfaithfulness and is ready to marry another woman in spite of the girl’s passionate denials and Count Rodolfo's ‘scientific’ explanation of sleepwalking; only a providential attack of her ‘illness’ in public convinces Elvino.
Luisa Miller is forced to write a letter in which she declares herself to be in love with another man: her beloved Rodolfo does not hesitate a moment and poisons her.
And poor Amelia in Un ballo in maschera? Her husband sees her in the company of the king – in not even a very compromising attitude – believes her to be an adulteress and is ready to kill her on the spot (he changes his mind afterwards and kills the king instead!).
This is what happens when the woman is innocent; so it is not surprising that when she is “guilty” the sentence passed is always a violent death.
Nedda in Pagliacci, unfaithful wife, is ferociously stabbed by her husband Canio in front of the entire village and her lover; Leonora, in La forza del destino, is caught in the very act – almost! – and she is cursed by her father and slain by her brother. Alvise, outraged husband, sentences his wife Laura, in love with Enzo, to die by poison (only Gioconda’s unselfish intervention saves her).
The capital sin for the woman of the nineteenth century, as portrayed in the opera of the time, is clearly to love an “other” man. Here, the word “other” does not necessarily imply the existence of a ‘rightful’ husband: it could mean only a man that has not been chosen or approved by whoever has authority over the woman, surely and always a man: her father, brother, or ward.
What is actually denied to women is the possibility of a personal choice, in love as in any other domain, and, above all, the self-management of her own sexuality. Behind this sexphobic obsession, the male determination to control and subdue any possible female activity is easily recognisable.
As Wilhelm Reich says:
“the affirmation and recognition of the woman as a sexual being would signify the collapse of the whole authoritarian ideology.”
[Psicologia di massa del fascismo, Milano, 174: 95. My translation].
Reich says also:
“The sexual act performed for pleasure...dishonours the woman...and a whore is she who acknowledges sexual pleasure and lives accordingly.”
This brings to another aspect of the female characters in the opera of last century, as well as in the literature and the theatre: their Manichean categorisation in “saints” and “whores”. This dichotomy is generated by the only aspect of women’s behaviour on which the social judgment was based: their capacity of self-effacement – the ‘good’ women – or of their self-determination – the ‘bad’ ones.
Only spite, ostracism and death can exist for the latter.
How can Violetta hope for happiness, after she has affirmed
Tutto è follia nel mondo
Ciò che non è piacer...
[Whatever it is not pleasurable, it is just folly...]
and, even worse:
Sempre libera deggìo
Folleggiar di gioia in gioia
Vo’ che scorra il viver mio
Pei sentieri del piacer.....
[I like to live free and frolicsome, I want to follow the path of pleasure...]
She will have to renounce to her love and happiness in favour of another girl, who, being pura siccome un angelo [pure as an angel] has the right to be happy. Violetta bitterly and lucidly acknowledges the cruelty of a social system who condemns her not because of a transcendental moral dictate, but for the iron will of l’ uomo implacabile [the unrelenting man]
Così alla misera - ch’ è un dì caduta
Di più risorgere - speranza è muta!
Se pur benefico - le indulga Iddio,
L’ uomo implacabile - per lei sarà.
[All hope is denied to a woman who once fell! Even though God will benevolently forgive her, man will be unrelenting.]
Something starts to change even in the opera, with the approaching of the new century: women continue to love and die, but they show a greater psychological autonomy and a larger freedom of action; the distinction between ‘saint’ and ‘whore’ becomes less evident, the moral condemnation more cautious.
The fin de siècle era is characterised by uncertainty and doubts: values, which were undiscussed forty or fifty years before, are now questioned; Risorgimento is far away, Romanticism is becoming Verism and Decadentism. New social classes claim their rights; ‘the unconscious’ is now held responsible for some of the human attitudes;
Gabriele d’ Annunzio is at the zenith of his fame; Ibsen’s drama is applauded in Italian theatres; on the operatic stage triumph the opera verista and Giacomo Puccini.
In the operas that are called veriste - such as the most famous Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni, or Il tabarro by Puccini or the hardly remembered Malìa by Francesco Paolo Frontini on a libretto by Luigi Capuana — women’s lives are still dominated by tragic love, but instead of paying for their own transgression, they cause the deaths of their lovers.
In Cavalleria Santuzza, who lost her honour with Turiddu, will continue to live, as will Lola, the adulteress wife, her rival. Turiddu is instead killed in a rustic duel by the outraged husband Alfio, who is put in jail for this crime.
In Il tabarro Michele avenge himself on his unfaithful wife, strangling her lover, whose corpse he throws at her. And in Malìa, Jana, who has been her brother-in-law’s mistress, is forgiven by her fiancee who is ready to marry her all the same – and we are in Sicily! – considering her victim of a spell (malìa).
The operas that mostly show the subtle changes occurred in the portrayals of the female characters are undoubtedly Giacomo Puccini’s. His heroines are also in love, but they prefer to live this love rather than to die for it. The identity love/marriage is not automatically presumed, passion substitutes the promises of eternal fidelity, pleasure is not exclusively a male prerogative.
Manon has left des Grieux for trine morbide (soft laces) and an alcova dorata (gilt alcove), and now she nostalgically remember her young lover’s labbra ardenti (hot lips) and infuocate braccia (passionate embraces). She pays with her life her greed for reaches and pleasure, but if society condemns her, her lover, betrayed and abandoned, does not curse or kill her — “elle pèche sans malice, elle est légère et imprudente” (she sins without malice, she is thoughtless and careless) says des Grieux in the original novel by Abbé Prévost. Forgiving everything, he is ready to follow her in her shame and exile.
In Bohème, Mimì and Musetta enjoy very independent lives: they live happily ‘in sin’, loved by men who are ready to forgive their occasional escapades, after some jealous remonstrances quietened by a caress and a lot of kisses. When Mimì dies, it is not for her ‘wrongs’, nor because rejected by Rodolfo, who would be more than happy to have her back despite her having gone away and her known other ‘affairs’.
Tosca, is the true protagonist of the opera, which bears her name. She makes the drama develop through her acts and mistakes. Jealous, she causes Mario’s capture; to save him she does not hesitate before deception and murder, and she kills herself not because overwhelmed by a sense of guilt for the murder of Scarpia, or because of the death of Mario, but because she refuses to yield to the justice of the hated Roman police.
With Tosca, enters the new century — its first performance took place in Rome the 14th of January 1900. It is with the challenging cry of this beautiful, passionate, strong woman, fiercely standing on the ramparts of Castel Sant’ Angelo, that it seems appropriate to close this overview on opera’s heroines: