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Monday, 18 June 2012

Virgin or Whore - women in 19th century opera


Cornelie Falcon as Rachel in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots
Cornelie Falcon as Rachel
in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots

Covent Garden are going to be performing Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable next season (and booking has already opened for Friends of Covent Garden), so it seemed a good time to take a sideways look at women French grand opera. In fact the early 19th century in France wasn’t a particularly good time to be an operatic heroine, the roles available seem to have been confined to two, the virgin and the tart. There are of course variants on these, virgins can be led astray usually by being deceived and tarts can have hearts. But, of course, if a virgin is led astray then the result almost certainly had to lead to tragedy and similarly for tarts with hearts. Whilst this is generally true of a lot of 19th century opera, it is particularly true of 19th century French opera where complex roles for women were limited and strong roles barely existed.

This seems to have become codified in the early part of the 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 two major female roles, Princess Eudoxie is the coloratura soprano, she is worldly, flirty and not particularly germane to the plot, whereas Rachel is virginal, led astray, pure but misguided in her love and ultimately sacrifices herself. These roles would almost become standard types; 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.


It has to be admitted that Valentine in Les Huguenots isn’t strictly soiled, but she is led astray by being in love with the wrong man (he’s a Protestant and she’s a Catholic).  Meyerbeer’s previous opera Robert le Diable is little better, as the heroine Isabelle is in love with a man who is being seduced to the dark side by his satanic father. In Auber’s La muette de portici the long suffering Elvire must put up with the fact that her fiancee is obsessed by a woman, Fenella, he has seduced and abandoned. This is set against the revolt in Naples against the Spanish (Fenella is conveniently for the plot the sister of Masaniello who leads the revolt). In this opera the fallen woman, Fenella, doesn’t even sing but is represented by a dancer and she commits suicide at the end (whilst Vesuvius is erupting).

The problem is that the writers (men of course) were not really interested in women except as vehicles for the plot, icons to be broken or tempted. French Grand Opera in particular was predicated on the idea of forbidden love taking place against grand public events.

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. The structure of the libretto conforms very much to the codified forms with the virginal soprano (Micaela, a figure added to Merimee by the librettists) and the soiled mezzo-soprano. If you take the libretto on its own, it is possible to imagine a version of the first 3 acts at least set more traditionally by someone like Offenbach; it is Bizet’s music which pushes the envelope. Bizet and his soloist, Galli-Marie made Carmen a far more realistic, sympathetic and tragic figure; also the ending fails entirely to stick to the rules, Carmen neither repents nor is she discreetly punished for her sins, instead she is killed on-stage in shocking fashion.

It in the comic operas where we also see the women being far more varied, Offenbach’s female heroines are an extremely mixed bunch. Just think of the Grande Duchesse, with her candid admission that she loves military men, or both Helen of Troy and Euridice revelling extra marital affairs. This is because the operettas were comedies, there enabled the upper classes to laugh at themselves; things became far less fun after the 1870 war. But Offenbach seems to have had this use of archetypes in his head, his use of the multiple heroines in Tales of Hoffmann is a perfect example. The Olympia, Giuletta and Antonia are early 19th century operatic heroines taken to their logical extremes and the opera conclusion is that Hoffmann is a fool to try and love any of them. His muse is far more complex and worthy than any of these one-dimensional women. Offenbach showed in his operettas that he was able to take a wry and satyrical look at the mores of society, so there is no reason to doubt that he could take a satirical look at the way society represented women in opera.

In the later 19th century Massenet particularly seems to have bought into the traditional 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 where is another world, one where 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 risk being just a few steps from a whore.

Later in the century, many of Massenet’s best heroines seem to come into the tart with a heart category as well. 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 her 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 (particularly French 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 mother’s wishes. To get a real feeling for this reversal we have to go back to Mozart with his Don Giovanni, a rakish man beset by upright women.

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, and Rossini definitely had interesting ideas. His operas include strong women such as Semiramide, and even Elena (La Donna del Lago), Zelmira and Anna (Maometto II) are no pushover. 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 lot. Rossini uses strong women for comic purposes in a number of operas; after all Rosina is hardly a shrinking violet and Isobella (Italiana in Algeri) seems to be a rather stronger personality than the men following her. His sequence of operas for Naples, with the art of Isabella Colbran at their centre, seem to have ensured that he developed a neat line in strong women. And in an opera like Armida, the role of Armida, which was written for Colbran, is the only female role in the opera and she eats men for breakfast.

But in other composers later in the century there is still a tendency for heroines to fit the virgin/tart mould. A quick glance at the heroines of Bellini’s operas confirms this tendency. 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, both Romeo and Giulietta die, La Straniera does not die but has to abandon all hope of personal happiness. And of course Norma is having an affair whilst being a virgin priestess, but not only her but the seconda donna too.

Donizetti’s serious operas reveal a similar count. But his operas are sometimes more complex in the way that they treat women. Parisina d’Este is perhaps more sinned against than sinning, but when her husband kills her putative lover she responds in a magnificently vituperative fashion. And in Maria di Rohan, Maria is potentially soiled and the libretto is pretty simplistic, but Donizetti responds to the situation with music of complex power, thus subverting stereotypes. Donizetti seems to have been drawn to heroines who are soiled, but he responded in ways which did much more than enliven a stereo-type. So it was possible for him to create something like Lucrezia Borgia where the soprano’s evil past is redeemed by her love for her son, but she remains a figure of evil and there is no major transfigurative moment. Maria Padilla has a heroine who unashamedly runs off with Pedro the Cruel, is installed in a palace and is his mistress. But she does actually have a document from Pedro saying he’ll marry her. Maria is a strong personality and in fact it’s her father who goes mad (Donizetti having fun with Milanese audiences here).

It is only when we look at the operas of Verdi that these archetypes really 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, Leonora (La Forza del Destino) are both 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. And in Preziosilla, Verdi takes the elements he wants and discards the rest; she’s an archetype, but not one who needs to be punished. At the end of Act 4 she simply disappears off with the soldiers.

There is an interesting side-view in all the above, the male roles written for women. The conventional view is that these continued in the 19th century because they enable the men in the audience to ogle women’s legs. Now this may be true, but if the choice of role was to be fainting in coils or being a penitent magdalene, then becoming a swaggering young man was definitely another alternative. The young woman who played Massenet’s Cherubin must have had great fun and the page figures who crop up throughout opera in France and Italy, create a body of subsidiary roles which must have been fun and interesting for female singers. (Just think of the fun you could have playing Romeo in Bellini’s opera and of course Malibran got to play Otello in Rossini’s opera.)

In the end we have to admit that an opera is (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; why modern productions tend to veer between the unimaginative traditional or the alarmingly modernist.

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