Abstract for IMSEA 2019

There is no shortage of operas depicting infertile women, yet the operatic voices of their ‘empty wombs’ remain largely unheard. The present study looks at Donizetti’s opera Gemma di Vergy (1834) and examines the cultural context in which the ‘disease’ was stigmatised. More specifically, this paper considers the extent to which Donizetti’s depiction of Gemma reflects his wife, Virginia Vasselli, and her inability to bear healthy infants, none of whom survived two weeks.

How was infertility conceived in fifteenth-century France, in which the opera is set, and nineteenth-century Italy and France? (Donizetti’s primary physicians were French.) What does the medical history of infertility tell us about Vasselli’s condition, and how does the death of Donizetti’s first child, in particular, affect the shape of the opera? Is there ‘musical’ evidence suggesting that Donizetti identifies with Count Vergy, or for that matter Gemma with Vasselli?

The present paper attempts to answer these questions by studying extant medical records (including postmortem examination and death certificates) of Donizetti and Vasselli. Select scenes are analysed for musical traces of physiological ‘typology’ of infertile women in nineteenth-century France. Rejecting William Ashbrook’s conclusion that Gemma’s ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘selfish’ traits contribute to the ‘fatal flaw’ of the opera, the study argues that infertile Gemma may in fact be depicted precisely as Donizetti had intended—as a woman with a ‘wandering womb’. (223 words)