Life can be tough for women in opera.
Across the repertoire, it’s not unusual to find them oppressed by husbands or fathers, betrayed in love, or fated to meet an untimely end.
But opera is not all tragic heroines. To mark International Women’s Day (8 March), which celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women, here’s our pick of female characters who take control of their own destinies.
Rosina – Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia
Frustrated by the constraints imposed by her guardian, Dr Bartolo, Rosina fights back to pursue her love for Count Almaviva.
Using her cunning and wit, she sets out to ‘lay a hundred traps’ for the Doctor, thwarting his plans to marry her himself in order to claim her dowry.
And she succeeds – with the help of that famous fixer, Figaro, the young couple emerge victorious and the opera ends with their betrothal.
Danielle de Niese as Rosina at Glyndebourne Festival 2016. Photographer Bill Cooper.
Susanna – Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro
Susanna is clearly the smartest character in Le nozze di Figaro – sit back and marvel as she navigates her way out of all sorts of sticky situations with aplomb.
It is Susanna who sees the ulterior motive behind Count Almaviva’s allocation of bedrooms. And Susanna who, along with the Countess (Rosina again, now married and somewhat disillusioned), ensures that Figaro’s plot to thwart the Count succeeds.
Quick-thinking, persuasive and charming, it’s a delight to see Susanna come out on top.
Susanna (Lydia Teuscher) and Figaro (Vito Priante) plot to thwart the Count. From Glyndebourne Festival 2012. Photographer Alastair Muir.
Tatyana – Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin
Shy but passionate, Tatyana takes her fate into her own hands when she seizes the initiative and writes a letter to Onegin, expressing her love.
Humiliated by his blunt rejection, Tatyana recovers her dignity and, in time, establishes herself in society through an advantageous marriage.
On meeting again, Onegin falls for this sophisticated, composed women, only this time, it is he who must suffer rejection.
In a display of great integrity and strength, Tatyana insists that their moment has passed and turns her back on Onegin to continue life with her husband.
Tatyana (Ekaterina Scherbachenko) writes the fateful letter. From Glyndebourne Festival 2014. Photographer Richard Hubert Smith.
Donna Elvira – Mozart’s Don Giovanni
One of many to suffer the indignity of being seduced and abandoned by Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira fights back in an effort to hold the villainous womaniser to account.
Using her impressive wits, Elvira repeatedly tracks Giovanni down, becoming a constant thorn in his side.
Moral and steadfast, she offers warnings to others at risk of falling for his predatory charms, including the young peasant girl Zerlina, who is advised to, ‘flee the traitor!’
Magdalena Molendowska as Zerlina at Glyndebourne Festival 2014. Photographer Robert Workman.
Carmen – Bizet’s Carmen
At once alluring and elusive, Carmen is the ultimate femme fatale.
Her refusal to conform to society’s norms sets her apart, and she bewitches all she meets, including the soldier Don José with whom she starts an affair.
But what Carmen cherishes above all is her freedom, and so strong is her drive to preserve it that she would rather die than be tamed. ‘Carmen will never give way! Free she was born, and free she will die!’
Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Carmen at Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Photographer Robert Workman.
Hipermestra – Cavalli’s Hipermestra
Instructed by her father to kill her betrothed on their wedding night, Hipermestra refuses – an act of rebellion all the more remarkable when you consider that her 49 sisters all carried out their identical orders.
Choosing to put her father’s life and kingdom at risk, she helps her husband to escape, setting off a chain of events that are the ruin of her father, but sees a happy ending for Hipermestra and her beloved.
To discover the twists and turns along the way, watch our short animation that tells the whole tale in just two minutes.
Hipermestra opens Glyndebourne Festival 2017 on 20 May and will be on stage until 8 July.