Torture the women!

Article by Robert Thicknesse

As everyone knows, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman – and doubly so in opera, where the very best a girl can expect are the pawings of libidinous oldsters, a psychopathic boyfriend, a family whose concept of honour demands her locking-up in a convent, at the very least a nasty disease; and the worst regularly involves death and/or A Fate Worse Than. This year’s Holland Park programme –  as ever, really – provides a ready-reckoner to the fates awaiting opera’s dewy-eyed heroines.

Opera tends to concentrate women’s minds by narrowing down their choice of profession rather dramatically; this can generally be nutshelled as “nun or whore”, though as the concept of the portfolio career blossoms it’s perfectly feasible to carry on both jobs at once. For more leisured classes, there are (limited) further lifestyle opportunities in virginity, spinsterhood and cronedom, though the occupants of these roles often appear keen to try something else.

There’s a view that opera exists to provide cautionary lessons in the downfall of women who venture beyond their proper roles; the locus classicus for this is Catherine Clément’s book Opera, or the Undoing of Women (1979). Since the relationship between the sexes (particularly in the later 19th century, the heyday of opera as a relatively popular artform) was founded on male hegemony, opera was bound to reflect this; and given the property and marriage laws of the time, it is beyond question that society was predicated on the subjugation of women. This is all neatly summed up by the epigram Prosper Mérimée placed (coyly encoded in Greek) at the top of his novelette Carmen (1845): “Women have two good moments: in bed and in the grave”.

Still, this theory begs many questions, not least in proposing that the creators of operas were reactionary chauvinists who approved the customs of the day – an absurd idea when you consider the radical-revolutionary nature of artists like Verdi, Wagner, Bizet and others (though perhaps less so Puccini). But operas must reflect the society that bore them – even if usually in a critical way – so it is reasonable to construe their depiction of women in a political way.

The 19th century imposed a progressive sexual apartheid on bourgeois womankind. To be respectable, women needed to be married off as soon and cheaply as possible, to remain virgin til that moment and monogamous thereafter. No such strictures applied to men, a state of affairs which necessitated the growth of an enormous substratum of non-respectable women to service their sexual foibles. There could be huge rewards in this for women who were good at it, and prepared to sacrifice respectability – or who never had any prospect of it.

Opera reflects this, and a swathe of works from La traviata to Lulu raise the issue of the human costs of this system. This coincided exactly with the curious social phenomenon whereby the opera house itself became a purveyor of those sexual services. Starting with its privatisation in 1831, the Paris Opéra functioned as pimp to its wealthiest patrons, encouraging them to roam the theatre’s coulisses and Foyer de Danse arranging assignations with the chorus and dancers. The girls from the slums of Paris who formed the corps de ballet were paid next to nothing and were effectively forced to supplement their incomes in the expected manner.

The management basically created the concept of Grande Opéra to provide a forum wherein these dancing-girls would be provided a lengthy ballet to advertise their fleshly wares to those patrons. (The ballet was legally required to take place in the third act of all operas, since the young aristos of the Jockey Club – the main beneficiaries of the dancers-for-hire system – were otherwise occupied at supper til that point.) This was precisely contemporary with the rise of the kind of opera in which the heroine dies at the end. Clearly, these are connected.

Back in opera’s early days, women didn’t have to die (with honourable exceptions like the very first heroine, Eurydice, who foolishly treads on a snoozing snake). Au contraire. Poppea in Claudio Monteverdi’s 1642 opera becomes Empress despite being as murderous and sexually wanton as you like. Handel’s women, enchantresses who enslave weak-willed men, suffer but usually survive, albeit in reduced circumstances. Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Rossini – none of them felt any pressing need to sacrifice their heroines; the death toll is reasonably fairly divided between the sexes. Purcell’s Dido dies, but so does John Blow’s Adonis. Alceste sacrifices herself, but Don Giovanni is consigned to hellfire; and so on.

It’s only later that women start to leave men standing in the death stakes, and whereas men tend to be sentenced for indictable offences, or crimes against honour, women in nearly all cases die for reasons intimately associated with love. One of the very first is Norma; and the opera that bears her name was – and I think we can agree this was more than coincidence – premiered in that fateful year 1831.

In fact Norma is even-handed – Pollione dies for love as much as Norma. But her death is elective: she chooses her suttee on Pollione’s pyre, at once a salutary reproof for the faithless fellow and a triumphant embrace of the myth of the woman who sacrifices herself for love. Does Norma know that she is setting a trend, making a fateful precedent for women with less control over their destiny? If she did, maybe she would think twice. But no, this lady is totes for burning.

After Norma, it’s open season. Romantic heroines line up to go mad and die (Lucia di Lammermoor), go on the game and die (La traviata, La bohème, Thaïs, Manon), get mixed up with violent nutters – or Americans – and die (Carmen, The Flying Dutchman, The Queen of Spades, Pagliacci, Madama Butterfly), take poison and die (Il trovatore, La Gioconda, Lakmé), get walled up and die (Aida), get stabbed by their brothers and die (La forza del destino), or simply melt into a dirty puddle in the hot sun (The Snow Maiden).

Let’s go back to the first, chronologically, of this season’s works, The Barber of Seville, to trace this catastrophic decline in life-expectancy. Since Rossini’s 1816 opera and Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart (1786) are technically comedies, there is of course no need for lovers to die: they just get married and grow to hate each other instead. At the start we have a virginal young Rosina whose prospects are distinctly gloomy, given the plans of her guardian Bartolo to marry her, and his virtual imprisoning of her till that point. But Bartolo is considerably more interested in Rosina as a financial prospect than in her primary or secondary sexual characteristics: like many a work of 18th-century literature (eg Pride and Prejudice, and Darcy’s “ten thousand a-year”), the true subject-matter is money – Rosina’s being the point at issue. Its power is the motor of the entire plot, from the way it oils Figaro’s brain to Almaviva’s disguising himself (so as to be sure Rosina isn’t merely after his position, property and title) to Bartolo’s eventual relief, and the resolution of the story, when Almaviva tells him to forget the dowry.

The Figaro operas also trace Rosina’s loss of power, once she has played her only trump, namely her person. Rosina knows what she wants and how to get it. But having got it, what then? As Countess Almaviva she is an appendage, the property of the Count, with no independent existence, reduced to hobnobbing and conspiring with her servants against her husband – a state of affairs she herself realises is wholly demeaning. (Beaumarchais’s afterthought – in the third Figaro play, written much later – that the Countess actually has an affair with Cherubino and bears his child is a bit opportunist.)

Only 15 years separate Rosina from Norma, but the world has changed and in the meantime Romanticism, which has been flourishing in other arts for many years (see Goethe, Blake, Byron, Friedrich) finally conquers the operatic sensibility in the persons of Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. And though technically Norma’s is not the first memorable female Romantic operatic death (that honour perhaps goes to the heroine of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena of 1830) she, much more than Anne Boleyn – boringly executed for treason – is the trail-blazer for their unhappy-ever-after future.

In these pre-nun days – we are talking Gaul c. 50BC – a moon-priestess is about as close as you could get, notably so since Norma’s job-spec emphasises virginity. She displays a healthily operatic disdain for such details, having already borne two children to the Roman Pollione. In the source play, Norma does actually manage to kill her children, so her execution conforms to legal norms. But shiny new Romantic opera can hardly endorse death for such banal reasons, and for this aperçu we must thank a man who had more uncredited influence than any other: Bellini’s librettist Felice Romani.

Romani provided libretti for many cornerstones of the Romantic repertoire: La sonnambula, L’elisir d’amore, Lucrezia Borgia, Il pirata, Maria Stuarda. He was happiest adapting existing plays, and among his notable instincts was his eye for a trend. And Romani’s eye was firmly fixed on the Parisian theatre and on the likes of Eugène Scribe and Victor Hugo, who with Alexandre Dumas created French Romantic theatre. The trajectory of women’s fates in opera originates in France, in the codification of sexual roles entrenched there in the second quarter of the 19th century.

These writers created a form of melodramatic theatre full of extreme events and emotions that lent itself exceptionally well to the requirements of operatic composers; indeed, plays and libretti by these men, and by their disciples like Scribe’s acolyte Victorien Sardou (the man who wrote La Tosca and whose formula for success was “Torture the women”), form the backbone of the repertoire until the death of Puccini. No great wonder that we can trace family similarities between the personnel of these operas, as well as a fixation on the tensions created by the sexual arrangements of 19th-century Paris, through the 70 years or so of opera’s Romantic heyday.

It was Scribe who was responsible for the play that eventually gave birth to Francesco Cilea’s 1902 opera Adriana Lecouvreur. Adriana is a character who doesn’t fit entirely neatly into the paradigms of Italian opera, since she is an 18th-century character shoehorned into 19th-century behaviour-patterns for the sake of an opera written in the 20th. But she, like Violetta, is an outsider who loves beyond her station, and dies for it – and, of course, she is a figure from French theatre in more ways than one.

It is the fact that she is an actress – universal shorthand for “loose woman” – that makes her tragedy both inevitable and suitable for opera. Set in 1730, Adriana is safely isolated in an era when morals and gender-roles were more relaxed, and sins of the flesh at least theoretically forgivable, than in Victorian Europe; nonetheless, we are certainly to understand that the heroine’s past has ruined her and her love-affair with Maurizio is doomed. (We might also note that that Adriana is actually undone by female hypocrisy: it is the jealous, adulterous Princess de Bouillon who exacts society’s revenge on the erring woman.)

With Puccini’s Minnie (La fanciulla del West, 1910) we find ourselves again with a heroine beyond the perceived mainstream, largely by virtue of the unusual way Puccini neglects to kill her. But her fate raises questions, and Puccini’s embrace of the all-American redemptiveness of David Belasco’s play can’t prevent a more questioning age from asking them. Because, as Rodney Milnes points out elsewhere, Fanciulla hardly represents the unalloyed triumph of fluffiness it might seem as those miners abruptly abandon their plans to lynch Johnson, and wave the happy couple off into the sunset like retards. It’s only a happy ending if the story finishes right there and nobody considers the future; the stroll into the sunset is almost a literal death (as some more sophisticated Westerns have admitted). What we have seen is a woman chucking in her lot with one of those Bad Boys so favoured in the tabloid confessions of should-have-known-better bimbos. Is this an appropriate destination for her long-preserved virginity? How will her independent spirit stand up to domestic drudgery and Saturday-night beatings? And what happens to the miners and the Polka Saloon when she has gone?

Still, virginity has to be got rid of somehow or other, or you’ll wind up like the nameless Governess of Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw (1954), putting her frustrated libido to work as a sex-maniac Miss Marple, uncovering lewd deeds that look very much like projections of her own seething unconscious. We have moved to a distinctly modern, Freudian world – Henry James’s tricksy novella was written in 1898 – where sex has become a psychological motor of much deeper significance than for the merely priapic inhabitants of earlier opera. As with Adriana, in Britten and Myfanwy Piper’s adaptation we see our heroine through a time-shift: she is an archetypal 19th-century character viewed through 20th-century eyes.

The governess was the most pitiable of 19th-century figures: a woman with no prospect of marriage (James’s 20-year-old is the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson), the very fact that she worked for a salary excluded her even from her former society. She had to be a lady, and therefore unable to mix with servants, but any association with her employers was also out of the question. Living in distant parts of the house, forced to crush their sexuality, many of these women pined away. The governess, really, is the epitome of what the 19th century could do to a woman. And in the case of Britten’s, it seems unlikely she’ll get another job after what happens at Bly.

Yes, life looks grim for operatic women. But Catherine Clément’s argument is a selective one, based on a handful of prime-suspect works, needily cherry-picking evidence of victimhood. The matter is more complicated; opera has its share of male victims of love too, ruined or brought to a sticky end: Pollione, poor old des Grieux in Manon, Eugene Onegin, Don Carlos, Alvaro (La forza del destino), Samson, Werther, Hoffmann, Andrea Chénier, Cavaradossi (Tosca), and let’s not forget old Radamès, buried alive with Aida.

But Norma gets to sing ‘Casta diva’, and Pollione doesn’t. And this is the point, often ignored by those who write about opera (including me so far in this piece). Opera is about music: that is the medium in which its characters live, breathe, rejoice, love, suffer and die; plots unfold in something that can look a bit like the real world, but operas can never be an “examination” of society or anything else. Violetta is certainly a victim of male hypocrisy, and her “redemption” through sacrifice and death feels like a pretty iffy piece of wish-fulfilment too, but it is only part of the story. Through music her tribulations, joys and redemption become universal. We do not go to the opera to see her punished, but to live and feel, through her, things that cannot be expressed any other way. Opera is not about dying – it is about living. Tonight we watch our heroines suffer on stage, and often die; but tomorrow they will leap back into life to remind us again what life is for, and to warn us not to waste it.

Robert Ticknesse is a freelance opera critic