Love has led operatic heroines down many paths often with tragic outcomes. One of their most common fates is abandonment-a fate that in nineteenth-century French opera could befall all kinds of women. It could happen to royal characters such as the Judean princess Salome, left behind by her mother in Massenet’s Hérodiade, as well as to poor spinning girls like Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. Regardless of their social status, many such abandoned women were given heartbreakingly beautiful laments. In Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII, a dying Catherine of Aragon nostalgically mourns that she will never see fatherland Spain again. And Lia, the mother of the prodigal son in Debussy’s cantata, grieves about the continued absence of her beloved son. Nineteenth-century female opera goers would easily have empathized with the pain of these characters. Abandonment was a tragic fate: it not only left an emotional void, but also threatened a woman’s identity. After all, her standing in society was often strongly dependent on family ties. This was especially the case in bourgeois and aristocratic circles, where women were expected first and foremost to guard the family’s wealth through marriage and reproduction and to run the household. Not providing your husband with a male heir could lead to divorce, as Catherine of Aragon experienced. Having a child out of wedlock could make women be ostracized from society, as was Marguerite’s fate.
Despite their fates, these women frequently show remarkable strength and magnanimity in the face of adversity. In Carmen, Micaela gathers all her willpower to find Don José in the inhospitable woods, even though he has rejected her, so he can see his dying mother. Gounod’s Juliet disobeys her father’s wish that she marry Count Paris and instead, she drinks the potion that will simulate her death but eventually reunite her with Romeo. Disregarding the paths that family members have set out for them, these women carve out new identities for themselves. Likewise, the women of Paris were also not confined to their domestic roles. Aristocratic and bourgeois women could influence the public sphere through their fashion choices, patronage of the arts, their salons, and so on. The Parisian streets were also walked by women that made a living for themselves as shop girls in the fashionable department stores or running small fashion businesses, and as such were less dependent on relatives in the formation of their identity.
The nineteenth century was also the golden age of the prima donna. Even though heroines generally originated as chimeras of the male creative mind-librettists and composers were usually men-female singers had a considerable influence in shaping their characters. Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, for example, was the reigning star of the Théâtre Lyrique for whom Gounod created the leading female parts in Faust and Roméo et Juliette. Juliette’s lighter, more coquettish “Je veux vivre” was added at her request so she could show off her lighter, agile voice and fondness for playful characters. To the contrary, she did not perform the more dramatic “Amour ranime mon courage” at the premiere for she needed to retrain her voice to tackle the aria’s heavier texture. A subtler influence was exerted by Eduard Lalo’s second wife, the contralto Julie Besnier de Maligny. She inspired the composer’s turn to opera in 1865 when he started writing Fiesque. Singers were often experts at exploiting contemporary print culture to tailor and disseminate images of themselves, and towards the end of the century, they also eagerly exploited the newly emerging technology of recording and photography. As a result, we can still get a glimpse of the voices that first sung these roles, such as Rose Caron, who created Lia in Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue and Yvonne Printemps in Les Chemins de l’amour.
Anouilh’s Léocadia, for which Les Chemins de l’amour was composed, is a play that explicitly invites us to look beyond the surface at the efforts made in constructing the image of a prima donna. Anouilh’s prince after the death of his beloved prima donna lived in a fantasy world consisting solely of his memories of her. Yet this image is not a gratuitous fantasy, but serves as a psychological escape from the ephemerality of the real world. The captivating arias of nineteenth-century French opera can also serve as a moment of escape, yet even when plots took place in the past, these operas responded each in their own way to real-life challenges. As modern life and the role of women and their love in society changed, opera’s female characters and their performers followed suit, populating the Parisian and other European stages with an ever greater diversity of fascinating heroines and paths for them to choose.