Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Romantic Trope of a Madwoman

by Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

The portrayal of Elvira in I Puritani follows the trope of the madwoman, which dominated the nineteenth-century European discourse on gender. Trapped in a man’s world, Victorian women often escaped into madness, which was viewed as the only permissible way for them to speak the truth and to solve the tensions and pressures of their untenable position. Within the sphere of art, drama and literature, crazed and suicidal heroines (Ophelia, Elaine, the Lady of Shalott) dominated the late-nineteenth-century artistic and literary scene.

The obligatory mad scene had its origins in a Renaissance theatrical convention of representing “mad women as erotomaniacs. This is based on masculine assumption that women are more inclined to go mad since they are closer to the irrational by nature, and that young women’s madness is, more often than not, caused by sexual frustration of unrequited love” (Hamana, 1995).

Shakespeare’s Ophelia, particularly, was seen as the epitome of female madness. In the clinical context, Ophelia came to represent a peculiar female malady; a psychological predisposition, based on one’s femininity, toward madness and suicide. In 1833, George Farren considered Shakespeare’s description of mad Ophelia to be an ideal example of a clinical case of female insanity: “It is impossible to conceive of anything more perfect than the picture of disease given by Shakespeare in this scene of Ophelia’s. Every medical professor who is familiar with cases of insanity will freely acknowledge its truth.” For Farren, Shakespeare’s description of Ophelia’s insanity has a clinical quality.

Eventually, the interaction between clinical, literary, dramatic, and visual discourse became conflated, blurring the lines of causality: it was becoming less and less clear whether Shakespeare merely presented “the picture of [ feminine] disease” or whether he created the disease. Elaine Showalter (1985) suggests that “illustrations of Ophelia, notably a series of pictures produced by Delacroix between 1830 and 1850, inspired by Harriet Smithson’s portrayal, played a major role in the theoretical construction of female insanity”. Showalter continues: “Ophelia became the prototype not only of the deranged woman in Victorian literature and art but also of the young female asylum patient”.

Soon doctors began to diagnose some of their female mental patients with “Ophelia.” In 1859 Dr. Charles Bucknill, then president of the Medico-Psychological Association, wrote: “Ophelia is the very type of a class of cases by no means uncommon. Every mental physician of moderately extensive experience must have seen many Ophelias. It is a copy from nature, after the fashion of the Pre-Raphaelites” (Showalter, “Representing Ophelia”).

Actresses of that time, such as Ellen Tracy or Harriet Smithson, visited mental hospitals in order to study young mentally disturbed girls to prepare for their roles as Ophelia. In 1879, commissioned to do a portrait of Tracy’s mad Ophelia, the painter and printmaker Anna Lead Merritt visited Bedlam Hospital in search of a “real model” (Kiefer 2001: 18). But the most dramatic insertion of Ophelia into the clinical discourse was a series of photographs taken by Dr. Hugh Welsh Diamond (1809–86), a superintendent of female patients at the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum in Springfield and a member of the Photographic Society of London. Beginning in 1851, Diamond took a series of photographs of young women to illustrate various cases of female insanity, while stylizing his patient to resemble Shakespeare’s heroine. For Diamond, Ophelia was an ideal madwoman. Shakespeare’s story provided the cause of madness and helped Diamond to write a psychiatric diagnosis and the story behind it (abandoned, traumatized, deflowered, and so forth).

The practice of diagnosing girls with Ophelia syndrome was widespread, and it also influenced Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–93) and his psychiatric research on female insanity. Lehman (1996) points out that “Dr. Charcot’s patients [like Diamond’s] were also coached for the cameras, and sometimes instructed to perform Shakespearian heroines while under hypnosis.” Freud was a student at Charcot’s clinic for four months in 1885 and 1886, and considered Charcot his greatest professional inspiration. To what degree were Freud’s own theories on femininity, female hysteria, and female masochism modeled on the image of Ophelia? Conflating the social and the medical, Freud medicalized femininity, creating an image of the feminine as intrinsically affected by the faults of her sex, and thus as prone to madness and hysteria.

Wanting to be as ethereally “sublime” as Ophelia and other popular madwomen, women of all walks of life began fashioning themselves as insane. As one of Paris’ first superstars, glorified specifically on account of her “heart-rending and graceful, simple and sublime” portrayal of mad Ophelia, Smithson “became the model for a Parisian fashion: a coiffure “à la Miss Smithson” was introduced, a coiffure “‘à la folle,’ consisting of a ‘black veil with wisps of straw tastefully interwoven’ in the hair,” reported Corsaire magazine on October 11, 1827 (Raby 1982). Loose hair on a woman was at that time a conventional theatrical sign for madness, and Smithson’s mad hairstyle was reportedly copied widely by the Parisian beau monde.


Farren, G. (1833). Essay on the Varieties in Mania, Exhibited by the Characters of Hamlet, Ophelia, Lear and Edgar. London: Dean and Munday.

Hamana, E. (1995). Whose Body Is It, Anyway?—A Re-Reading of Ophelia. In Yoshiko Uéno (Ed.), Hamlet and Japan (pp. 143–154). New York: AMS Press.

Kiefer, C. (2001). The Myth and Madness of Ophelia. The Myth and Madness of Ophelia (pp. 11–39). Amherst: Mead Art Museum.

Kromm, J. E. (1994). “The Feminization of Madness in Visual Representation.” Feminist Studies, 20(3), pp. 507–535. See also Chesler, P. (1972). Women and Madness. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Lehman, A. (1996). Theatricality, Madness and Mesmerism: Nineteenth-century Female Performers. (Doctoral Dissertation, Indiana University, 1990). Dissertation Abstracts International

Raby, P. (1982). ‘Fair Ophelia’: A Life of Harriet Smithon Berlioz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Showalter, E. (1985). The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830–1980. New York: Pantheon Books.

Showalter, E. (1985). Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism. In Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (Eds.), Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (pp. 77–94). London: Methuen.

Steele, V. (1985). Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty From the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. New York : Oxford University Press.

Winslow, F. (1854). Recent Trials in Lunacy. Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology, 7.

Monday, April 28, 2014

BLO's Interpretation of I Puritani

Set Model of BLO's I Puritani, Set Design by John Conklin

by Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

BLO's version of I Puritani preserves the original historical context, but – following Bellini’s own intent – we focus on the psychological truth of the characters rather than the historical details. History here serves only as a device to tell a larger story of men and women, painting the contrast between the two ruling elements, male and female, and the destruction that follows when they’re off-balance and one comes to dominate the other.

Through the use of an abstract and metaphorical set and costumes, we emphasize Elvira’s isolation in the male-dominated, military world, portraying her slow descent into madness, and blurring the lines between reality and hallucination. The women in our production, like the men, are nondescript; dressed  in identical costumes, they become mirror images – echoes – of Elvira’s own mental condition. She becomes the everywoman of her epoch, and her madness becomes an expression of stifled emotions constrained by the masculine framework from which she cannot escape. Her only escape, so it seems to her, is to fall in love with someone from the other side.

Friday, April 25, 2014

I Puritani Production History

by Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) is known for three major operas: La Sonnambula (1831), Norma (1831), and I Puritani (The Puritans, 1835). I Puritani was Bellini’s last, and it was composed between 1834 and 1835 specifi cally for the Théâtre-Italien in Paris. During the time he was writing the opera, Bellini was close to Rossini, whose presence in the operatic life of Paris loomed large. Although there was a subtle animosity between them, Bellini is said to have valued Rossini’s advice; likewise, Rossini came to appreciate the younger composer’s talent.

The libretto for I Puritani was written by Count Carlo Pepoli, and it was based on a historical drama, Têtes Rondes et Cavaliers (1833, The Roundheads and the Cavaliers), written by Jacques-Arsene Polycarpe François Ancelot, and Joseph-Xavier Boniface, and set during the English Civil War (1641-49). Led by Oliver Cromwell, the Roundheads (also known as Parliamentarians) were the Puritan supporters of the English Parliament. Their opposition, the Cavaliers, were the Royalist supporters of King Charles I. In 1649 Charles I was executed, and from 1649 to 1653 the Parliamentarians ruled England. In I Puritani, the English Civil War provides the historical context, but it is nondescript. It serves as a dramatic vehicle for the story of the star-crossed lovers Elvira and Arturo as told via music, and it could be replaced with any other military conflict.

This was the first time Bellini had changed his librettist, replacing the experienced Felice Romani with Pepoli. Bellini ended up very pleased with the final results, but about Pepoli, he wrote: “He’s better than anyone else, but he is no Romani.”

When the opera premiered, under the direction of Domenico Ferri, it was an instant hit, and the four principal singers — Giulia Grisi (Elvira), Giovanni Battista Rubini (Arturo), Antonio Tamburini (Riccardo), and Luigi Lablache (Giorgio) — were so well-matched that, to this day, they are known as the “Puritani Quartet.” On the very first night, “there was an explosion of enthusiasm” which left Bellini “shaking and at times stunned.” Writing about the success of I Puritani in a letter to Santocanale, Rossini noted: “The composer and the singers were called on the stage twice, and I must tell you that such demonstrations are rare in Paris, and only happen if they are truly deserved. My prophesies are fulfilled, even to the extent that they are beyond what I had hoped for ...” Queen Marie-Amélie, to whom Bellini dedicated the score, had graced the second performance. Soon after, Bellini was invited by the Queen and King Louis Philippe to the royal palace, and the King made him a Cavalier of the Legion of Honour.

There were so many demands for encores, particularly for the duet “Suoni la tromba,” that Bellini was asked to make a number of cuts to ensure that the opera did not run past the 11:00 p.m. curtain time (set by police orders). Elvira’s ‘mad scene,’ for example, was moved to its current place, since originally it fell flat after the wild enthusiasm that “Suoni la tromba” evoked. Eventually, Bellini agreed to make an alternative version of I Puritani, with Elvira sung by a mezzosoprano, and Riccardo a tenor. As a result, there is no final authoritative text of the opera, and the text is open to interpretation. I Puritani was said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite opera, and indeed it was a quintessential Victorian opera of the Romantic period, with its obligatory “madwoman” scene, its Romantic love story, and its exaltation of traditional values.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Students Share their Reactions to Rigoletto

Every season Boston Lyric Opera invites high school and college students to view the final dress rehearsals of Shubert stage productions free of charge. The dress rehearsal program gives many students the chance to experience opera for the first time, as well as cultivate their appreciation of opera throughout their educational careers. In exchange for dress rehearsal passes, BLO asks students for their feedback on the performance. Students had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to Boston Lyric Opera’s most recent production of Verdi’s gripping drama, Rigoletto. Here is what they had to say:

“Every year this is one of the things that I am most excited about in Italian class.”
–Medford High School student

“The Boston Lyric Opera’s performance of the opera Rigoletto was sublime.”
–Whitman Middle School student

“In past years I went to see The Barber of Seville and Macbeth for similar trips. I can honestly say that Rigoletto was my favorite opera I’ve seen so far… I was surprised by how much I understood of the opera without the English translation.”
–Medford High School student

“The costumes were great, the set was amazing, the orchestra was on point, and the singing was moving. Thank you for a great performance to brighten up my week!”
– Medford High School student

“The music and singing gave me goosebumps.”
-Whitman Middle School student

“From start to finish, the opera’s protagonist, Rigoletto, carried the production with captivating power and expression of voice, gesture, and passion.”
–Medford High School student

“I can truthfully say, that this trip to the opera, was perfect.”
–Whitman Middle School student

We would like to thank all the teachers who have brought their students to the opera and students for their insightful responses. We hope to see you again at future BLO educational events.  To learn more about opportunities to introduce young people to opera and educational resources, visit