As we have mentioned earlier, the term “traviata” means “lost woman,” and in context it connotes the loss of sexual innocence. It represents the thinking of a time when sexual activity outside of marriage was considered immoral and unmarried couples living together were the subject of scandal.
Though most operas were written in a time when monogamy was considered the norm, opera as we know it could hardly exist without its “fallen” women. Strangely enough, the casual attitude toward adultery one finds in Renaissance comedy never found its way into comic opera, which for the most part has been the domain of the chaste heroine. Mozart’s Così fan tutte is on the surface a depiction of female infidelity, but the women still insist that their suitors marry them before they will be willing to betray their fiances. Not until 1911, with Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, do we find a casual acceptance of female marital infidelity.
Tragic opera, on the other hand, thrived on sexual relationships outside of marriage. Adultery was a staple of the verismo movement around the turn of the 20th Century, usually resulting in the death of the lover, the wife, or both (I Pagliacci, Cavaleria Rusticana, Il tabarro, as well as the American opera most influenced by the verismo style, Kurt Weill’s Street Scene). Though Carmen (in an opera which looked forward to the verismo movement) never marries Don José, in killing her he acts like a jealous husband. In the mid-nineteenth century Verdi composed Stiffelio, an opera about a husband who forgives his wife’s infidelity, a concept so out of keeping with conventional morality that it was rarely performed. The bearing of out-of-wedlock children also leads to tragedy, as in Faust, Vanessa, Suor Angelica, and Simon Boccanegra.
Opera frequently depicts the helplessness of women in a male-dominated society, and for many operatic heroines living with a man is the only way to survive. Manon, for example (in both operas which bear her name) lives with two different men in order to avoid spending the rest of her life in a convent. In La bohème, not only the flamboyant Musetta but the seemingly innocent Mimì can survive economically by living with men who can support them. Bess (Porgy and Bess) also lives in a society where women must depend on men for their support and marriage does not fit into the equation.
Prostitution of the street-walker variety does not play a part in opera until the twentieth century, and when it does – as in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress or Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – it is a symbol of decadence, not liberation.
Courtesans figure prominently in three operas other than La Traviata. Jules Massanet’s Thaïs tells the story of a courtesan during the early days of Christianity who converted to that religion and left her profession behind her to live in a convent. A far less sympathetic courtesan can be found in the character of Giulietta in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, a predatory woman who bewitches the hero and steals his reflection, his very soul.
The opera which most resembles La Traviata – and in some ways seems to be modeled on it – is Puccini’s La Rondine (1917). Like Verdi’s opera, it is the story of a small-town boy (Ruggero) who comes to Paris, falls in love with a courtesan (Magda), lives with her away from Paris, and eventually sees the relationship break up because of the difference in their backgrounds. The first act, which takes place during an informal get-together at Magda’s home, more closely resembles the first act of Dumas’ play than does La Traviata, with its gala ball. Unlike Alfredo and Violetta, however, this opera’s lovers need no external pressure from family to end their relationship; upon learning that Ruggero intends to marry her and take her home to meet his mother, Magda realizes that she has no place in his provincial world, and she voluntarily returns to her former life. Ruggero’s apparent naivete in not recognizing her checkered past is often regarded as a weakness in the plot and may be a reason that this tuneful opera is not performed more often.