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Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas

Kristi Brown-Montesano
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 341
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  • Book Info
    Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas
    Book Description:

    IsThe Marriage of Figarojust about Figaro? Is Don Giovanni's story the only one-or even the most interesting one-in the opera that bears his name? For generations of critics, historians, and directors, it's Mozart's men who have mattered most. Too often, the female characters have been understood from the male protagonist's point of view or simply reduced on stage (and in print) to paper cutouts from the age of the powdered wig and the tightly cinched corset. It's time to give Mozart's women-and Mozart's multi-dimensional portrayals of feminine character-their due. In this lively book, Kristi Brown-Montesano offers a detailed exploration of the female roles in Mozart's four most frequently performed operas,Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte,andDie Zauberflöte.Each chapter takes a close look at the music, libretto text, literary sources, and historical factors that give shape to a character, re-evaluating common assumptions and proposing fresh interpretations. Brown-Montesano views each character as the subject of a story, not merely the object of a hero's narrative or the stock figure of convention. From amiable Zerlina, to the awesome Queen of the Night, to calculating Despina, all of Mozart's women have something unique to say. These readings also tackle provocative social, political, and cultural issues, which are used in the operas to define positive and negative images of femininity: revenge, power, seduction, resistance, autonomy, sacrifice, faithfulness, class, maternity, and sisterhood. Keenly aware of the historical gap between the origins of these works and contemporary culture, Brown-Montesano discusses how attitudes about such concepts-past and current-influence our appreciation of these fascinating representations of women.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93296-8
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Overture
    (pp. xi-xxvi)

    What is your book about?Most authors, I imagine, have to face this difficult question repeatedly during the long process of writing a manuscript. In my case, the stock answer was “It's a critical study of the female characters of the Mozart–Da Ponte operas andThe Magic Flute.” Frequently, this response satisfied questioners’ curiosity (or frightened them away), but on other occasions it led to dialogue or even to a passionate debate. The subject of that debate often depended on who was doing the asking. I have been lucky enough to share ideas with opera fans, occasional listeners, singers,...

  5. ACT ONE (Anti-)Heroines and Women on the Edge

    • CHAPTER 1 Feminine Vengeance I: The Assailed/Assailant
      (pp. 1-33)
      Donna Anna

      “Don’t hope, unless you kill me, that I will ever let you escape” (1.1): with these words, Donna Anna responds to Giovanni’s criminal trespass, vowing that she will bring him into custody or else die in the effort.¹ Though many of the characters chase after Giovanni at one moment or another during the course of the opera and eventually band together, Donna Anna is the first to articulate the idea of this pursuit. And while Donna Elvira sings about cutting out Giovanni’s heart, it is Anna whose desire for vindication remains constant throughout the opera. Recounting to Don Ottavio the...

    • CHAPTER 2 Sisterhood and Seduction I: Abandonment and Rescue
      (pp. 34-60)
      Donna Elvira

      “If abandonment brings out the worst in women, their enslavement to men or their passion,” remarks Lawrence Lipking, “it also brings out the worst in common attitudes toward women ... reduc[ing] them to a few types or caricatures: the poor lost soul or the avenging virago.”¹ Not surprisingly, Lipking had Donna Elvira in mind when he wrote these words. Excessive sensibility and an imprudent nature ensnare her in a cycle of humiliation, whether she wants to kiss Giovanni or kill him. Explaining the significance of this arrestingmezzo-carattererole in the context of what might be categorized a black comedy...

    • CHAPTER 3 Class Survival
      (pp. 61-80)

      It is no surprise that among the women ofDon GiovanniZerlina is generally the critical favorite. Quite simply, she is easy to like. In contrast to Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, the country girl seems almost always to be smiling. She does not waste time on regret or worry, taking life as it comes. Hers is arguably the happiest ending in the opera: Don Giovanni gives her some pleasure, but he is never able to do her lasting harm. Her good fortune owes something to her rescuers, the women who suffer most in the opera, but her own deft...

    • CHAPTER 4 Feminine Vengeance II: (Over)Powered Politics The Queen of the Night
      (pp. 81-106)

      “She has no proper name,” writes Jacques Chailley, but is a “lunar symbol of rebellion against that supremacy of the ‘strong sex.’”¹ “She” is the Queen of the Night, arguably the most famous iconographic symbol of Mozart’s operas, her star-encircled form appearing on legions of books, recordings, posters, coffee cups, and clothing. Reviled for her character and revered for her song, the Queen is also the most enigmatic of all Mozart’s creations, a dramatic puzzle that has never been—and perhaps never can be—fully solved. She is often understood as everything her daughter, Pamina, is not: vengeful, scheming, defiant...

    • CHAPTER 5 Good Daughter, Good Wife
      (pp. 107-135)

      Human love in its many forms is one of the primary themes ofDie Zauberflöte. The opera solemnizes Freemasonry’s distinctive brand of fraternal attachment, and it comments on familial and conjugal devotion as well. All of the characters invoke love, but it is Pamina who is most motivated by—and vulnerable to—love’s claims. Committing herself to Tamino with ingenuous fervor, the daughter of the Queen of the Night goes mad because of conflicting loves. Both the Queen and Sarastro attempt to annex her affection and her future, allegedly as a sign of caring. Monostatos adores her, too, but she...

    • CHAPTER 6 Woman’s Identity I: Sacred and Profane The Three Ladies and Papagena
      (pp. 136-152)

      With the figures of the Queen of the Night and Pamina, femininity fissions into two extreme poles: the tenebrous Mother cast down in humiliation, forever rebuked for her rebellious pretensions to power, and the yielding Daughter who accompanies her husband up the ranks of brotherly initiation with tender devotion. Between these two representations of womanhood we find the Three Ladies. Inseparable, they occupy a middle ground that does not always conflict with the Kingdom of Light, but is nevertheless prohibited from becoming part of it. Unlike the Queen, the Ladies engage in dialogue with Papageno and Tamino, participate in the...

  6. ACT TWO Sisterly Alliances and Sisters Subverted

    • CHAPTER 7 Sisterhood and Seduction II: Friendship and Class
      (pp. 155-193)
      Countess Almaviva and Susanna

      Will therealprima donna please stand up? This question seems to be a starting point for much of the critical discussion regarding the Countess Almaviva and her maid, Susanna. Social rank is usually the trump card in opera buffa when all other virtues are more or less equal, but the heroines ofLe nozze di Figaropose a special case. For every spectator, interpreter, or critic that holds the noble Countess up as the opera’s first lady, there seems to be a strong answering claim in favor of Susanna. If it were possible to ask the Countess Almaviva and...

    • CHAPTER 8 Woman’s Identity II: Loss and Legitimacy
      (pp. 194-212)
      Marcellina and Barbarina

      The premieres ofLe barbier de Seville(1775) andLe mariage de Figaro(1784) were separated by nine years of royalty disputes, censorship, and imperial prohibition. Beaumarchais may have completed the sequel toLe barbieras early as 1776, but it had been revised and cut numerous times before it was finally staged by the Comédie Française with the king’s permission. Censors prescribed some of the revisions, but Beaumarchais also streamlined the overly long original. Even with these extensive revisions and trimmings,Le mariageran three and a half hours, which extended to five hours at the first official performance due to the numerous outbursts of prolonged audience...

    • CHAPTER 9 Sisterhood and Seduction III: Intimacy and Influence
      (pp. 213-258)
      Fiordiligi and Dorabella

      Two young women, the only pair of biological sisters in Mozart’s operas, sit together in the morning sun, each gazing dreamily at their lover’s portrait.¹ In a few moments they will take part in a peculiar type of school, but—having missed the orientation—they will not realize this until the class is over. Like Pamina, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are the necessary but unwitting participants in a special tutorial, in which experienced (male) reason will strip idealistic (male) youth of its delusions about love and reveal the true nature of women:così fan tutte. Theoretically, the sisters learn something, too, in the process. The Opera’s subtitle, “la scuola...

    • CHAPTER 10 Survival Class
      (pp. 259-276)

      In many ways, Despina is the typical maidservant ofbuffaconvention: shrewd, flippant, sensual, and opportunistic. In the context of Mozart’s operas, however, she stands apart from her much-admired predecessors Susanna and Blonde. Though Despina shares her mistresses’ confidences, she never exhibits affection for them; to be fair, the sisters are not very kind to her either. In the absence of genuine female friendship and esteem, Despina’s cleverness is easily yoked to a man with money in his pocket. It is not that she schemesagainstFiordiligi and Dorabella—she genuinely believes that they will be happier if they focus...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 277-298)
  8. Works Cited
    (pp. 299-304)
  9. Index
    (pp. 305-316)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 317-317)