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Heller, Wendy

Chastity, Heroism, and Allure:
Women in the Opera of Seventeenth-Century Venice

Ph.D. Brandeis University, 1995

In the context of contemporary writings by and about women, this dissertation examines the representation of the emblematic heroines of seventeenth century Venetian opera--Dido, Octavia, Veremonda, Semiramide and Messalin--as realized by Venice's most popular opera composers: Cavalli, Monteverdi, Pietro Ziani, and Carlo Pallavicino. The first section focuses on the writings about gender and sexuality that provide the essential background for the development of opera in Venice: philosophical and religious tracts, novelle, plays, catalogs of heroines, and behavior manuals, in which the authors invoked female exempla to argue about the nature of femininity. Chapter 1 examines the "exceptional woman" of legend and history, contemporary ideals concerning male and female virtue, biological sex and gender, and the special circumstances in Venice that allowed this polemic to flourish. The second chapter focuses on the writings of the Venetian Accademia degli Incogniti, a group of intellectual patricians deeply involved in the production of opera, who infused the developing genre with ambivalent attitudes towards women and sexuality. Opera, an ideal means for the dissemination of cultural messages, thus became a vital voice in the contemporary polemics about women.

The remaining chapters form the catalog of heroines--variously chaste, heroic, and alluring--who brought to the stage complex historical legacies that profoundly influenced their operatic representations. Spanning a forty year period in which conventions become hardened, and in which academically minded librettists are replaced by market-oriented professionals, this section explores the musical and dramatic conventions by which composers and librettists transformed the women of legend and history into more acceptable models of feminine behavior, suppressing the rhetorical prowess of their most volatile and threatening heroines, and reserving musical eloquence for the lamenting, virtuous woman. The dissertation concludes by proposing that this conflict between the contemporary standards for female virtue and the rhetorical prowess of the opera heroine is manifest not only in the opera of seicento Venice, but is of fundamental concern to the genre as a whole, testifying to the perpetual danger and allure of a woman's voice.