I recently saw an opera I’d never seen before, Puccini’s “La Rondine” (a lovely production at San Francisco Opera with Angela Gheorghiu and Misha Didyk). The story is not an unsual one. Magda, a beauiful worldly woman who is the mistress to a banker, falls in with an ardent, naïve young man. She leaves her glamorous life in Paris and runs off with the young man. She doesn’t succumb to consumption like Violetta in “La Traviata,” but when her young lover proposes and starts talking about taking her to meet his mother and raising children, she decides she’s too damaged to be his wife and leaves him (in a stunning, poignant aria).
Magda is just the sort of heroine I always find myself wanting to have a happy ending. I’ve always thought “fallen women” make some of the most interesting heroines–there’s so much history and potential conflict (not to mention that they often get to wear the best clothes; I noticed that even before I was quite old enough to understand what a “fallen woman” was :-). Rakish heroes often reform and settle down with virtuous young girls. Even if they think their past makes them unfit to touch the hem of their beloved’s gown, the heroines can usually persuade them otherwise (a couple of lovely scenes from Georgette Heyer’s “These Old Shades” and “Venetia” come to mind). But the double standard ensures that the rake’s female counterpart seems doomed to a tragic ending in most stories.
This double standard in literature and opera plots of course mirrors society and repercussions such couples would face. A rake like Eugene Onégin could marry an innocent young girl like Tatiana without causing a scandal and being thrown from society (that Onégin rejects Tatiana in the Tchaikovsky opera and the Pushkin novel upon which it was based is because he doesn’t recognize the woman she will grow to be and perhaps because he wishes to spare her disillusionment). But Violetta if married Alfredo in “La Traviata” (if they even openly continued to live together) it would spell ruin not only for Alfredo but for his innocent young sister, as Alfredo’s father explains to Violetta in one of opera’s most heartbreaking scenes.
Magda in “La Rondine” faces no such ultimatum. Her beloved, Ruggero, doesn’t know about her past, and his family is ready to welcome her as his bride. But Magda seems (so far as I could make out from the supertitles) to feel she is “tainted” and cannot be his wife and the mother of his children. Watching the opera, I realized that like Magda, Mélanie in “Secrets of a Lady” would certainly be viewed as “tainted” if the truth of her past were known. Mélanie has a moment where, like Magda, she wonders if the honorable course of action would be to leave the man she loves. “If she were honorable in the best British tradition, no doubt she would disappear onto the Continent and leave her husband and children to get on with their lives. But even in the guise of Mrs. Charles Fraser she had never fiully embraced the values of her husband’s world.” On the contrary, Mélanie is quite prepared to use whatever leverage she has to prevent Charles from keeping their children from her.
Driving home from “La Rondine,” I tried to think of “fallen women” heroines who had happy endings. I couldn’t think of any in opera (of course, opera has a dearth of happy endings in general). I also couldn’t think of many in literature. Lady Barbara Childe, in Heyer’s “An Infamous Army,” is rumored to have had lovers. Whether or not the rumors are true is never made explicitly clear (her younger brother says “I’m ready to swear she’s never gone beyond flirtation”). Marguerite in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” has been an actress who moved in bohemian, republican circles, but at least in the books it’s explicitly stated that she hasn’t had a lover or even been in love before Percy (some of the adaptations change this).
What do you think of “fallen women” as heroines? Can you thnk of any interesting examples from books or plays or operas or movies? Any with happy endings? Mélanie touched on the same subject in this week’s additon to the Fraser Correspondence, a letter she writes to Raoul.