Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Destructive parents, toxic masculinity, and bad decisions

Rigoletto, Opera Queensland, 2014 © Stephanie Do Rozario

Rigoletto is an opera where a lot of things are frequently seen to be either black or white. The Duke’s court is evil and vicious. Gilda is innocent and pure. Rigoletto is an overprotective father. Bad triumphs over good. It's true—this is an opera with a tragic ending where so many things go wrong. Yet this is also a reductive view of the opera that says very little about its essence, the depth of the characters’ humanity, and what keeps drawing us back.

By Naomi André, PhD

Verdi's Parenting Paradigm  

Rigoletto begins what many consider to be a trilogy of operas that connect Verdi’s early and middle periods: Rigoletto, 1851; Il trovatore, 1853; and La traviata, 1853. All three operas have prominent parental figures who belong to in-between vocal types (baritones and a mezzo-soprano) and, despite each one’s deep love for their children, end up doing great harm. Rigoletto could be seen to prefigure this character type as the father who contributes so directly to his daughter Gilda’s death. 

Unwittingly, he helps abduct her and later carries the bagged bundle of her mortally wounded body. Verdi follows this pattern of harmful parenting in La traviata. Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, is also a baritone who acts foolishly out of love when he pressures his son’s lover Violetta to preserve his family’s honor by leaving Alfredo. And the drama propelling Il trovatore (as witnessed last season at Seattle Opera) centers around Azucena’s horrifying past that involved infanticide and her haunting memories that serve as a type of post-traumatic stress syndrome. A strong mezzo-soprano, Azucena is an unusual character; she loves Manrico as her son, yet inadvertently contributes to his execution in the end.

The trauma of losing a child is a horror that for most of us— mercifully—will remain unimaginable. Yet these operas present situations that press on our most tender frailties as so many of us in the audience understand the simultaneous complexity and vulnerability of parenting.

Problematic parents! Verdi had a penchant for telling stories about complicated mother/father and child relationships. From left to right: Nora Sourouzian (Azucena) in Seattle Opera's 2019 Il trovatore. Philip Newton photo. Rigoletto, Opera Queensland, 2014 © Stephanie Do Rozario. And Weston Hurt (Germont) in Seattle Opera's 2017 La traviata. Philip Newton photo  


Gilda is a difficultcharacter for most women today to understand, let alone cheer for. In so many ways, she seems rather pathetic—the lonely daughter of a father who loves her in such an overprotective way that she is denied healthy opportunities to grow and mature on her own. From the beginning of the opera through the start of the third act, everyone else makes the decisions that affect her, a typical situation for a women living in a world run by (and for) men. Rigoletto has ordered her to stay home except in going to church and he has hired Giovanna to oversee her every move. The Duke, disguised, bribes Giovanna to visit Gilda and seduces her. The courtiers (and the unknowing Rigoletto) abduct Gilda, and the Duke then assaults her when she is taken to the court.

In the beginning of Act 3, we see that Rigoletto has brought his daughter to witness the Duke flirting with Maddalena at Sparafucile’s inn on the outskirts of town. Rigoletto wants Gilda to see the Duke for the libertine that he is, so that she will renounce him and follow her father’s instructions to escape to Verona, where they will start a new life. This scene’s famous quartet juxtaposes the Duke’s seduction of Maddalena inside the tavern with Gilda and Rigoletto outside looking in. You can’t help but hear the Duke’s seductive melody, almost the mating call of a preening tropical bird; but listen for Gilda’s descending appoggiatura sobs punctuated simultaneously by Maddalena’s sixteenth-note laughing, as well as Rigoletto’s fatherly “I told you so” baritone support.

In a strong contrast, the trio immediately following provides everything we need after being suspended in time during the exquisite quartet. The story races ahead in a dynamic scene full of movement and action. After Rigoletto goes away, expecting his daughter to follow his directions to travel incognito to Verona, Gilda makes a few decisions—the first we’ve seen her do during the entire opera (and what would have been a rebellious act at the time for a young woman!). As a storm is brewing, Maddalena begs her brother Sparafucile to find a way not to murder the Duke—she has grown fond of him. Sparafucile reminds his sister that he is a man of his word and must deliver a body. Nevertheless, they reach a compromise and the assassin will substitute another body for the Duke in the event that anyone else arrives.

Rigoletto, Opera Queensland, 2014 © Stephanie Do Rozario


Gilda’s decisions start piling up: she has already disobeyed her father and has returned to the inn. She hears the assassin and his sister’s conversation from outside, chooses not to go to Verona, and—most momentously—decides to sacrifice herself for the Duke. The mounting storm begins in the music with open fifths in the low strings and orchestral effects notated in the score from high flute “lightning” jolts to an off-stage chorus humming the howling wind. Verdi pulls out all of the stops to write theatrically dramatic music as the mounting tension in the orchestra creates the tempest outside and underscores the out of control decisions Gilda recklessly makes. She allows her head to follow her heart, probably in response to her limited understanding of the world and lack of any “adult” guidance that would have helped her mature wisely. We can see how her sheltered, naïve existence, the lack of strong maternal influences, and inexperience could lead to her making such disastrous decisions.

Though Gilda makes several ill-advised choices, her character undergoes an evolution from her passive and compliant youth to finding a voice and making up her mind. Her heroism is faint, but it echoes a stance of doing what she believes in: a fiercely loyal love, misguided as it seems. Her actions reach for what she lacks in her life—an exciting, impulsive venture that she controls. Though Gilda, her overprotective father Rigoletto, and her unapologetically unfaithful suitor the Duke are all deeply flawed characters, such weaknesses reflect what it means to be human. Such humanity is what makes our experiences at the opera so powerful and keeps drawing us back for more.

Naomi André is Seattle Opera's Scholar in Residence and a Professor at the University of Michigan. 

Rigoletto plays at Seattle Opera Aug. 10-28, 2019. Tickets & info: