A fatal attraction to fallen women

As La Traviata returns to London, Jessica Duchen wonders why opera's routinely punished heroines get such a raw deal

Verdi's La Traviata – literally "The Fallen Woman" – is back at the Royal Opera House. And what a lot of "fallen women" there are in opera. They love, stray and suffer, singing all the while. From La Traviata's heroine, the consumptive courtesan Violetta, to Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole, premiered this year, opera itches to punish its heroines. All the art form lacks in its demonisation of passionate women is a boiled bunny.

Mostly, they die. Often, horribly. Largely, they die in the 19th century, but the 20th never quite left them alone. Violetta is the most archetypal. She is the Lady of the Camelias, based on Alexandre Dumas's novella. When she falls in love with Alfredo, his father pressurises her into giving him up to save the family reputation. Eventually he relents, just in time for her to die in Alfredo's arms.

Verdi's operas are peppered with women whose conduct seems to condemn them to terrible ends, voluntarily or not. Rigoletto's daughter, Gilda, lets herself be stabbed to save the odious Duke of Mantua who seduced her. Aida is buried alive; the company in death of her beloved might be small compensation.

Puccini was arguably even better at creating fallen heroines. Madame Butterfly commits suicide when her husband betrays her and tries to take away her child. Suor Angelica swallows poison after learning that the son she bore out of wedlock has died. La Bohème's Mimi, expiring of consumption, may seem innocent – but might the opera's original audience infer that she must be punished for living in sin? It's as if opera possessed an early, inward version of Hollywood's Hays Code, ready to restructure its stories according to its characters' apparent moral failings.

It wasn't always thus: early operas were more ambiguous. Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea concerns the Emperor Nero's all-consuming love affair with a married woman. The pair stop at nothing, murdering those who obstruct their union – and they get away with it.

Handel's heroines are often faithful, determined spouses, like Rodelinda. Mozart's are human and nuanced, especially when the libretti are by Da Ponte. In Così fan tutte, two sisters are conned into infidelity, yet forgiven (depending on the director); in Don Giovanni, the anti-hero leaves a trail of fallen women in his wake, but it is him, not them, who receives the punishment. Then comes Beethoven's Leonora in Fidelio: the ultimate in marital devotion.

Interestingly, though, Beethoven's story comes in for a lot more criticism than La Traviata. Puccini's La fanciulla del West, which dares to have a happy ending, has never grabbed the hearts of its public like Madame Butterfly or La Bohème.

French opera abounds in capable, faithful heroines – Fauré's Pénélope, Massenet's Charlotte in Werther – but they're not the ones who sell most tickets. Those are Bizet's Carmen, the free spirit whose fate is sealed as soon as she appears; and Gretchen in the Fausts of Berlioz and Gounod, which focus on Faust's affair with Gretchen and its awful consequences.

Wagner's Ring Cycle allows its gods and demigods some brief but extraordinary transgressions. But his preoccupation with the virgin/ whore complex is evident elsewhere. In Tannhäuser, the hero is torn between saintly Elisabeth and Venus herself; Elisabeth goes to heaven to pray for him (she dies). Lohengrin's Elsa is horribly punished for asking her new husband who he really is.

One could blame Romanticism and 19th-century society: many of these stories portrayed the entrapment of women in a hypocritical bourgeoisie. But why are they still popular? Anna Nicole turned its heroine into an archetype just a step away from Violetta, suggesting that our "celebrity" culture is nothing but the same hypocrisy repackaged.

If it's any comfort, if redemption can be found, it is usually granted to the fallen woman, rather than the man who felled her. Gretchen is saved; Suor Angelica dies to the strains of a heavenly choir. As Violetta expires in Alfredo's arms, we could assume, if we so wish, that she will be forgiven in the hereafter.

The bottom line, though, is that there's no arguing with the heart-strings. Opera exists to pull them. And nothing does that job as well as a doomed, passionate heroine who gives all for love, including her life.

'La Traviata', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) 3 October to 25 January

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Arts and Entertainment

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment