Throughout the era of romantic opera — from, say, Mozart to about Puccini — the female characters were nearly all silly, passive, often the helpless victims of ill-intentioned or lustful men. Any disapproval or resentment the women might show would be laughed off, regarded as a tedious nuisance or even evidence of mental instability. Revenge for their behaviour was the province of their male protectors.
The plot of ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ is a cruel deception practiced on two perfectly nice girls, and when the girls come dangerously close to falling for the trick the deceivers themselves berate them for it before deciding that really one can’t expect any better of mere women, and in ‘Don Giovanni’ the peasant girl Zerlina, following her almost-seduction by Giovanni, goes so far as to invite her indignant boyfriend Mazetto to beat her up.
Things are a little better by the time we reach Verdi — ‘Rigoletto’ can be read, as I like to read it, as an exposure of the dire results of an over-protective attitude to women, and we feel sympathy for poor Gilda, but even so in the end she gets stabbed and tied in a sack, from which, absurdly, she sings her final aria.
Puccini? Well, here at least the plots become less ludicrous, even socially and politically significant. Mimi in ‘La Boheme’ has to die of consumption of course, but it would be hard to read ‘Butterfly’ as anything other than an indictment of the crass insensitivity and selfishness of men towards women. They are still, however, passive creatures, relying on the goodwill of men.
Only with Richard Strauss, right at the end of the romantic opera tradition, do women become properly, morally active — ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ is a surprisingly early work, but it is distinctly ‘modern’ (i.e. rebarbatively dissonant in places) and the main plot is decided and moved by the female character of the Marschallin. The two young lovers are a bit silly — it is after all a comedy — and at the end the whole romantic opera tradition comes full circle when, finding themselves together at last, they sing something that could have been written by Mozart:
(I doubt that it’s in C major really; I’m just giving you the tune from memory.)
So what, finally, is my point? Well none really; it’s just something I felt like writing about. I suppose one could conclude that opera is essentially a reactionary art, tending to conform to and even confirm conservative social values. A modern opera composer such as Harrison Birtwistle might disagree, but — though he is a fine and interesting composer — how many people who would flock to hear Cosi fan Tutte or even Rosenkavalier would leave their firesides and televisions to hear his latest?