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Women Behaving Badly: Opera's greatest femmes fatales

What is it about the ‘bad girls’ of opera that we find so appealing?

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

6 December 2013 at 5.11pm | Comment on this article

They challenge established morals, they champion pleasure and they insist on living life on their own terms. A large number of them meet unhappy ends. But they are among the most famous and best loved of operatic characters. What is it about the ‘bad girls’ of opera that we find so appealing?

Violetta Valéry, La traviata

When we first meet Verdi’s Violetta, she is a courtesan – a woman who earns her living giving pleasure to men. She is extremely good at her job. But Verdi also depicts her as a self-aware woman with an immense capacity for love. We are moved as we watch Violetta’s progression from the light-hearted coquette of Act I, who declares in ‘Sempre libera’ that she wants to live entirely for pleasure, to the generous, self-sacrificing woman prepared to give up her love Alfredo for the good of his family. And Violetta’s dignity and kindness in Act III as she prepares for death is extremely moving, as she prays to God to help her (‘Addio del passato’) and then consoles Alfredo and his father.

Carmen, Carmen

Carmen certainly has dubious morals: she’s a smuggler, who enjoys having power over men. She persuades Don José to desert from the army for her, only to reject him a few months later. But Bizet also makes Carmen very compelling. She has a wonderful joie de vivre and sensuality, which we see and hear in her Act I Habanera and Seguidille, and in the exuberant Act II Danse Bohemienne. She never lies to Don José, or anyone else, about her feelings. She is brave, and stoically accepts her fate in her Act III aria En vain pour éviter when she reads her death in the cards. Even when Don José confronts her in Act IV and threatens to kill her she refuses to be intimidated, telling him that ‘Carmen will never give in. Free she was born, and free she will die!’. And she does.

Manon, Manon

Massenet’s Manon is a ‘good time girl’, who abandons her lover Des Grieux for the wealthy De Brétigny, gloats at her power over men, then lures Des Grieux away from his training as a priest and cajoles him into becoming a gambler. And yet, Massenet gives Manon such meltingly beautiful music that we can’t judge her too harshly. Her Act I aria ‘Je suis encore tout étourdie’ and her exuberant Act III scene 1 Gavotte depict her as an innocent, largely unaware of the damage she is doing. Her nostalgic Act II aria ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ shows that she is genuinely torn between her love for Des Grieux and her love of riches. And in Act V, Manon finally realizes the depth of her feelings for Des Grieux. She begs him to forgive her, and, to exultant music, sings of her devotion to him. Manon may behave badly, but she is a woman with a great resource of love.

Anna Nicole, Anna Nicole

Blonde ex-stripper Anna Nicole sets out to manipulate the media and men. She marries an octogenarian billionaire for financial security, and embarks on a career of extensive self-publicity, determined to ‘rape that goddamn American dream’. And yet at the same time Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas portray Anna as something of a cheerful innocent, who falls prey to the media and to such unscrupulous men as the Lawyer Stern. They also movingly depict her tenderness for her aged husband, particularly in his death scene, and for her son. Anna mourns her son’s death with the opera’s most beautiful aria, and her loss ultimately destroys her.

Carmen runs from 16 December 2013 to 9 January 2014. Tickets are sold out though returns may become available. A limited number of day tickets will be available on the day of performance.

Manon runs from 14 January to 4 February 2014. Tickets are still available.

La traviata runs from 19 April to 20 May 2014. Tickets go on sale to Friends of Covent Garden on 11 December 2013, and on General sale on 14 January 2014. 

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