In much 19th century opera heroines are confined to 2 roles, the virgin and the tart. There are of course variants on these, virgins can be led astray but only by being deceived and tarts can have hearts. But, of course, if a virgin is led astray then the results almost certainly have to lead to tragedy and similarly for tarts with hearts. This is particularly true of 19th century French opera where complex roles for women are limited and strong roles barely exist.
This seems to have become codified in the early part of the 19th century when grand opera based on classical myth gradually made way for the French Grand Opera of the type written by Auber, Meyerbeer and Halevy. Halevy’s La Juive has just 2 major female roles, Princess Eudoxie is the coloratura soprano, she is worldly, flirty and not particularly germane to the plot, Rachel is virginal, led astray, pure but misguided in her love and ultimately sacrifices herself. These roles would almost become codified. The first Rachel, Cornelie Falcon, whose soprano voice had a dark mezzo-soprano quality, would become known for her playing of such soiled virgins such as Rachel or Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.
One of the reasons that Bizet’s Carmen caused such a stir was the fact that Carmen failed to conform to the tart with a heart sort of role; Bizet and his soprano, Galli-Marie made Carmen a far more realistic, sympathetic and tragic figure.
Because of the stratified nature of the Paris Opera establishment, the French Grand Opera became almost codified, a librettist like Scribe could almost write librettos to a formula. In Italy there was less codification, but there is still a tendency for heroines to fit the virgin/whore mould.
A quick glance at the heroines of Bellini’s operas confirms this tendency. In La Sonnambula is only a comedy because the heroine is revealed to be sleepwalker and all stain removed, in I Puritani Elvira goes mad when she believes Arturo to be false. But frequently even falsely accused women usually end up in tragic circumstances, Beatrice di Tenda dies even though falsely accused, Romeo and Giulietta die, La Straniera does not die but has to abandon all hope of personal happiness.
A glance at Donizetti’s serious operas reveals a similar count. This is very much a 19th century development, one that seems to go hand in hand with the development of Romantic Opera. After all Rossini’s operas include strong women such as Semiramide, and even Elena (La Donna del Lago), Zelmira and Anna (Maometto II) are no pushover . And even Rosina is hardly a shrinking violet. Some of Rossini’s operatic heroines fit into the fainting violet role, but some don’t; considered as a whole Rossini’s operatic heroines are a pretty varied log.
In the later 19th century Massenet particularly seems to have bought into this view of women, perhaps it was endemic in men who worked in opera. After all, consider Degas images dancers, these seem to be completely realistic and give us a glimpse into the Parisian stage world, but behind these images consider that the many dancers would be expected to give favours to particular important men after the show. To be a woman on the stage in the 19th century was to be just one step from a whore.
Many Massenet’s best heroines seem to come into the tart with a heart category. Manon is considered by many to be his finest opera, but it only works if you are prepared to be charmed and teased by the heroine. If, like me, you find the heroine of the opera simply vapid and stupid then the charm is lost. What is fascinating is that in operas such as Manon, Thais and Sapho, the plot would not work in 19th century terms if the roles were reversed. It is here that we can see how much of 19th century opera is shaped by the attitudes to women of the male creators of the form. Imagine an opera where the plot is that of Manon or Thais but with the roles reversed. A male Manon figure, in love with pleasure, seducing a female Des Grieux figure; interestingly it is Massenet who comes closest to this. In Werther we have a plot where an upright female figure is tempted by the Romantic love of an impulsive man. Of course, Werther is an archetypal Romantic Young Man he is not a dissolute lover of pleasure. And Charlotte can still be seen as the transgressive virgin, she does love Werther but marries her boring husband because of her dying husband’s wishes.
It is only when we look at the operas of Verdi that these archetypes start to break down. There is nothing virginal or whore-ish about Abigaille and Odabella, Lady Macbeth is certainly transgressive but is neither virgin nor whore. These are strong roles, complex roles, in his treatment of women Verdi starts to hark back to the more rounded treatment of Mozart. Verdi does use the archetypes, after all Gilda and Leonora (La Forza del Destino) are examples of the transgressive virgin. Leonora shows enough strength of mind to go off on her own and try and expiate her ‘sin’. Violetta is a fascinating example of the tart with a heart, but Violetta is far stronger than we might expect her to be, she’s definitely stronger than Alfredo and the libretto has to make her ill in order for her to faint and expire in the requisite manner.
Of course, an opera us (usually) greater than the sum of its parts so that a piece like Manon can tell us a lot more than what Massenet’s attitude to women was. But this rather partial representation of women in 19th century opera helps you understand why modern directors such as David Alden have such extreme visions of these operas.