This book began life with a different title: ‘In tuono deciso’, or Verdi’s Heroines. The phrase ‘in tuono deciso’ (‘in a decided tone’) is a stage direction in the score of Verdi’s Alzira, when the eponymous protagonist is told by her father that she must marry not the man she loves but his enemy — and rejects that instruction with a firm ‘No’. Quite soon, however, I realised that this title addressed only part of the topic.
Not only did I want to explore a fuller range of Verdi’s female characterisation, I was also deeply curious about the female audience who saw and heard those operas in nineteenth-century Italy. The purpose of the book evolved through tracing the encounters between the communities of fictional and real women who faced each other across the foot-lights — mediated by the various artists who sang the roles and who belonged in some sense to both worlds.
These encounters were shaped by an epoch that confined women to a narrow path, prohibiting their freedom to choose a partner, their access to knowledge and education, their rights to work and indeed their rights within the working-place, their acknowledgement of their own sexuality, their protection from domestic violence, their equality under the law — and, most tellingly of all, political representation via suffrage.
Intriguingly, Verdi’s selection of narratives for his operas reveals a preference for those in which women often demonstrated a greater independence, spirit and thirst for resistance than was normally encouraged. Many of his protagonists mirror Alzira’s actions and refuse to comply with patriarchy’s expectations. Some, including Giovanna (Giovanna d’Arco), Odabella (Attila), Amelia (Simon Boccanegra) and the Tudor townswomen of Falstaff, even managed to wrest enough control over their lives to fulfil their desired goals.
women often demonstrated a greater independence, spirit and thirst for resistance than was normally encouraged.
Other challenges are made to bitter cost. Yet even here, characters such as Violetta (La traviata), Gilda (Rigoletto), Leonora (La forza del destino) Elisabeth (Don Carlos) and Desdemona (Otello) voiced their anguish in a way that invited — and sometimes demanded — audiences to confront the consequences of certain social mores and conventions on the lives of women.
Does this mean that Verdi was consciously pursuing a proto-feminist agenda? Not really. He was, above all else, a ‘man of the theatre’; rebellious heroines provided far more dramatic conflict and potential than those who meekly abided by the strictures of their time. Whatever additional significances these female characters might have held for their audiences were by happenchance, not design.
And did these operas change society? Again, no. Changing society requires determined political activism, collective will and sweeping legislation. Italian women, for example, weren’t granted the vote until 1945 — a full century after Alzira first defied her father. Nonetheless, like so many other cultural narratives of the period from poetry to figurative art, Verdi’s operas contributed to the ways in which society saw itself, considered its actions and (at times) imagined other possibilities. From that communal process of sifting and sampling ideas would eventually emerge the openness to embrace new directions.
Cambridge University Press is delighted to support International Women’s Day 2017 (8th March 2017). From the 6th-10th March we will be sharing brand new blog content from our authors which explore the themes of ‘IWD 2017’ and continue the discussion on feminism and women today and through the ages.
Cambridge will also be celebrating women in academia and their work by making a variety of book chapters free to read online – including some of the most vital contributions to feminist theory and women’s history. These will be accessible from: www.cambridge.org/IWD2017
Susan Rutherford is author of Verdi, Opera, Women, you can read a FREE extract from the book here