The image of Verdi we have come to know best—that of the old man with a farmer’s cap and a twinkling eye—aligns with the self-image he carved in his correspondence: a simple man from the country, one who never professed erudition in lofty matters of philosophy or aesthetics. Verdi eschewed theory in favor of intuition, and when it came to operatic composition, he proudly followed his theatrical sensibilities.
Never did he feel his intuition was more on target than when he discovered the character of Triboulet in Victor Hugo’s drama Le Roi s’amuse. It is a joy to read Verdi’s correspondence from the early months of 1850 because his enthusiasm is positively infectious. Take, for example, a letter of May: “Oh, Le Roi s’amuse is the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times. Triboulet is a creation worthy of Shakespeare!!!” Hugo’s hunchback lit a flame in Verdi’s heart. Never before or after was Verdi so inspired by a single character, a character he described as outwardly ugly and ridiculous, but inwardly impassioned and full of love.
Verdi claimed his admiration of Shakespeare extended from boyhood, and he affectionately referred to Shakespeare as “Papa” in conversation and in correspondence. It is said that two copies of the complete works remained constant bedside companions: the Italian translation of Carlo Rusconi (prose) and that of Giulio Carcano (prose and verse). His love of Shakespeare led Verdi to adapt Macbeth for the theater in 1847, a love that lit without ever having seen a Shakespeare play performed: Verdi’s first experience of Shakespeare in the theater came shortly after Macbetto’s premiere. He was 34 years old.
Shakespeare became extremely popular in Europe in the early nineteenth-century, and Verdi and Hugo were among the many artists of the Romantic generation who saw his works as models for contemporary drama, alternatives to the Neoclassical dramatic tradition that dominated the eighteenth-century. Hugo was highly critical of the ideals and aesthetics that governed Neoclassical drama, and his opinions made their way into lengthy prefaces of his dramas such as Cromwell (1827), in which he encouraged writers to take after Shakespeare by dramatizing subjects inspired from nature—from the world around us in all its imperfections. Hugo (and Verdi) admired Shakespeare’s ability to deftly combine the comic and the tragic to contrast pure and graceful characters such as Ophelia and Desdemona alongside characters such as Polonius and Iago, men who embraced passion or vice; who were greedy, sensuous, or hypocritical. Hugo quipped, “The beautiful has but one type, the ugly has a thousand.” Verdi agreed, and strove in his own work to create a dramaturgy more akin to that of Shakespeare’s. By so doing, he hoped to circumvent the monotonous, formulaic dramatic schemes of his Italian contemporaries.
Yet this desire to see “the comic and the terrible” in one and the same drama was not shared by everybody: Théophile Gautier described the ambivalence French audiences felt towards works that mingled the comic and tragic in his review of the Paris premiere of Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe (the source play for Verdi’s Luisa Miller, written just prior to Rigoletto): “strident laughter which all at once gets entwined with the shock of exalted passions has something about it that still astonishes [our audiences].”
Hugo’s concerns went beyond elements of plot or subject; the representation of reality equally occupied his thoughts. He faulted Neoclassical drama for concerning itself solely with ideal subjects and eschewing those taken from nature. Yet to write what was “real” did not mean to make a true copy of everyday life. Hugo distinguished between two types of reality: that which accorded to art and that which accorded to nature. He invoked Hamlet when he called upon his colleagues to hold a mirror up to nature, but emphasized that in a simple reflection color and light are lost: “...drama must be a concentrating mirror, which, instead of weakening, concentrates and condenses the colored rays, which makes of a mere gleam a light, and a light a flame.” Verdi echoed this advice in a letter to Arrigo Boito during their adaptation of Othello:
Copying from what is real may be a good thing, but inventing what is real is better, much better. There seems to be a contradiction in these words, ‘invent what is real,’ but ask Papa. It is possible that Papa had come across somebody like Falstaff, but it is unlikely he ever met anyone as evil as Iago, and never, ever angels like Cordelia, Imogen, Desdemona, etc., etc., and yet they are so real! To copy from what is real may be a good thing, but it is photography. It is not painting.
Rigoletto’s material ranges from acerbic jibes to heartbreaking, lyrical phrases of sincerity. When we first meet him, he is the embittered tutor in vice to the Duke, a viper who lashes with his tongue. No one in the court is spared Rigoletto’s belittling, including the Count Monterone, who lays on Rigoletto “the father’s curse.” During their exchange, Rigoletto mimics the Count: his vocal material lies in the same tessitura as Monterone’s and employs similar repeated rhythms and notes—most significantly middle C. Our view of Rigoletto changes in the subsequent scene between him and his daughter Gilda: here, an additional brushstroke adds a different color to the portrait. Rigoletto is not the same person when he is with his daughter, so Verdi composes distinctive musical material: his “Deh, non parlate al misero” is a beautiful and fleeting moment of tenderness that shows Rigoletto reflecting on the memory of his late wife. The music expresses his vulnerability, his sentimentality and his tender love for the woman who loved a man so “Solo, difforme, povero” (alone, deformed and poor). There is no trace of his occupation as court jester here. As the drama unfolds, Rigoletto’s character further develops, culminating in his physical and spiritual breakdown at “Cortigianni, vil razza dannata,” an aria in which Rigoletto expresses rage, weepy waywardness, and honest appeals of mercy from the Duke’s courtiers. It is here where, despite all of his faults, my heart goes out to him. This is where one hears the passion and love that Verdi saw in “his little hunchback.”
Rigoletto was always the opera for which Verdi had a soft spot—and I think it is because he felt most closely allied to Hugo and Shakespeare during its composition. Rigoletto certainly feels like watching a play. Each time I have the opportunity to see it in performance I think of the enthusiasm that Verdi held for his title character, an inspiration that, like some airy spirit, must have made its way into the score itself, for when I listen to Rigoletto, I hear not only the music: I hear Verdi’s heart beating in every measure.