Now I’m no feminist, but I have a nagging suspicion that Puccini’s female characters don’t make good role models by and large. Not that opera plots can really be taken as believable anyway. So, in the spirit of investigation, here’s a rundown on the fates of Puccini’s operatic dames: Four suicides, three other deaths (broken heart, exile, and consumption), and one murder.
To be fair, in four of Puccini’s twelve operas, the lead female character does not die, and two of his operas even have relatively happy endings. And we can’t really fault Puccini for the stories, which were libretti (opera booklets) adapted from other literary works. But let’s get to the juicy stuff.
“La Bohème” is probably the most popular opera of all time. Mimi, the poor, consumptive, embroidering heroine (who in the “old days” of opera weighed upwards of 300 lbs) dies of her disease. Musetta, a gold-digging flirt, eventually shows some compassion for Mimi. I’d like to think that after the story ends, she opens a free clinic for starving artists, using money from one of her beaux.
“Madama Butterfly” is the ultimate war-bride tear-jerker. In Japan, Cio-Cio-San, a geisha, marries the U.S. naval jerk Pinkerton, who only weds her so he can get her in bed. Despite having his child, when she gets the news that he has married someone else (during his three year absence) she commits honor suicide (hara-kiri) while her little boy watches.
“Tosca” (which George Bernard Shaw called “a shabby little shocker) has at its core a jealous diva who claims to have “lived for art and love” but who double crosses her would-be seducer, murdering him instead of sleeping with him to save the life of her lover, the painter and political radical Cavaradossi. When he is executed anyway, as planned all along, she jumps to her death off a roof in Rome. (In my sequel, she is sued by the owner of the trattoria on whose canopy she landed.)
“Turandot” is a spectacle set in “legendary” China, with the ice-princess of the title sending would-be suitors to their deaths if they fail to answer the riddles she poses. The female death in this one is of the “secondary” character, the slave-girl Liù, who is hopelessly in love with Calaf, who himself loves guess who, the ice-princess. Liù has got to be opera’s most loveable doormat. Rather than reveal Calaf’s name, she kills herself after enduring torture. Dr. Phil didn’t get to her in time.
In “Suor Angelica,” (one of the three shorter operas that make up “Il Trittico”), Angelica enters a convent after having an illegitimate baby seven years prior. The Princess, Angelica’s aunt, arrives to tell her that Angie’s sister is going to marry her ex-lover and that she must sign over all her inheritance. When she refuses, the Princess tells her that her baby died two years ago. Angelica signs, poisons herself, sees visions of the Virgin Mary and her son, but dies anyway. See what Britney has to look forward to?
“Manon Lescaut” features a gal on her way to the convent (the old convent ploy) in the company of an old geezer who desires her, but a melancholy student also falls in love with her at first sight. She quickly dumps the convent idea for a life of pleasure in Paris (I probably would too), where she runs off with the student instead of the old guy. She shacks up with the student until his money runs out, goes over to the geezer, gets bored, pines for and reunites with the student . . . you get the picture. She’s a courtesan, that’s fancy talk for a prostitute, kept woman. Dumped in prison by order of the jilted geezer, she is exiled to the “desert” of New Orleans territory, that’s right, Louisiana, described as a desert but better known to us as “the Big Easy.” The student goes there with her. She dies of thirst. Even if they weren’t right in the French Quarter, water is everywhere in Louisiana.
In “Le Villi,” Puccini’s rarely performed first opera, newly engaged Anna’s fiancé, Roberto, is enchanted by a supernatural seductress. Anna waits months for him, then dies of grief. Her ghost calls on the “ville,” fairies who make heartbreakers dance themselves to death, which he does.
“Edgar,” Puccini’s second opera, also rarely encountered, features Tigrana, a debauched gypsy woman (is there a sweet, innocent gypsy woman?), who lures Eddie away from his pure-girl love, Fidelia. When he tires of orgies (imagine that) and leaves Tigrana for the military, only to die in action, the gypsy vows revenge. Well, he was only faking his death, and when Tiggy sees him reconcile with Fiddy, she stabs her to death.
That’s the lurid female stuff, with the exception of “Il Tabarro” (The Cloak), another component of “Il Trittico.” In it, Giorgetta, married to a man twice her age, falls in love with another boatman her own age. Her husband kills him in a fight and reveals the body to her wrapped in his cloak, the one that had sheltered the couple and their baby, before the baby died. I’m sensing a guest appearance on “Project Runway.”
Even in Puccini’s comic and lighter operas, the women are schemers (Zita and Lauretta in “Gianni Schicchi”), a kept woman (Magda in “La Rondine”) and a card-cheater and other woman (Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West”).
So there you have it. Some of the most luscious romantic music in the world, and the most beloved theatrical evenings read like a police blotter from hell. What can you do?
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs