Spotlight On: Rigoletto

At Seattle Opera January 11-25, 2014

Music by
Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by
Francesco Maria Piave

First Performed Venice, 1851 | In Italian with English Captions | Marion Oliver McCaw Hall

Long Story Short: Playboy duke seduces and abandons pretty virgin. When her hunchbacked father, the duke's jester, tries to be avenged, it backfires horribly.

Who's Who?
The Duke of Mantua
is an attractive young nobleman who spends his leisure time seducing every woman he sees.
Rigoletto, the Duke's court jester, is a nasty, miserable old hunchback.
Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, is innocent, virginal, and far too good for this wicked world.
Giovanna is the unreliable duenna Rigoletto has hired to keep an eye on Gilda.
Count Ceprano is one of the Duke's courtiers. All the courtiers loathe Rigoletto, but Ceprano more so than most.
Countess Ceprano, his wife, is quite the beauty.
Count Monterone is an old nobleman whose daughter has been ruined by the Duke.
Sparafucile is a hired assassin who runs a seedy inn on the outskirts of town.
Maddalena is Sparafucile's attractive sister. She dances in the streets in order to lure men to Sparafucile's tavern, where he kills them and dumps their bodies in the river.

Where and When?
In Mantua, a city in northern Italy. Seattle Opera's 2014 production is set in the 1930s.

What's Going On?
That irrepressible bad boy, the Duke of Mantua, is at it again.

He's just had his way with the beautiful daughter of Count Monterone, and next on his list is a pretty girl he's seen in church. But at one of his many parties, his eye is caught by the lovely Countess Ceprano, wife of another courtier. Rigoletto, the wicked jester who encourages the Duke's licentious ways, suggests the Duke kidnap Ceprano's lovely wife and throw the husband in prison, banish him, or behead him. Ceprano and the other courtiers vow revenge on Rigoletto, who, they learn, keeps a mistress himself: a beauty hidden away in a remote house. But Rigoletto laughs them off: as the Duke's favorite, he is untouchable.

Into the middle of their bacchanal bursts Count Monterone, who tells the Duke he will be avenged for his daughter's honor. When Rigoletto ridicules him, the old man curses both the Duke and his vicious jester. The Duke's bodyguards drag Monterone off to prison while Rigoletto cringes in terror of the curse.

Rigoletto's career (if you can call it that) is all about inciting the Duke to sleep with every woman he sees. His home life, on the other hand, is all about preventing his beloved daughter, Gilda, from sleeping with anyone. Gilda is the one ray of light in Rigoletto's terrible life, and he keeps her a virtual prisoner in the house. She is only allowed outside to go to church, and doesn't even know her father's name or what he does.

Her naiveté makes her easy prey for the Duke, who comes calling one night while Rigoletto is away. Gilda recognizes the handsome young man who goes to her church; he tells her he is a poor student named Gualtier Maldé and wins a declaration of love from her lips.

Later that night, she is musing over his name when the courtiers appear on the street below her balcony, wearing masks. They have come to abduct Rigoletto's "mistress." Rigoletto shows up, and they tell him they are planning to abduct Countess Ceprano as a surprise for the Duke. Rigoletto wants to help, so they give him a mask; but it's really a blindfold, and Rigoletto doesn't see that he is in fact helping them abduct his own daughter until it's too late.

The next day, the Duke is lamenting Gilda's sudden disappearance when his courtiers tell him, "We've got her downstairs." He immediately dashes off to have his way with her.

It doesn't take Rigoletto long to figure out what is going on: but the courtiers, astonished (and pleased) to find out that she is really the jester's daughter, gang up and prevent him from helping her. Soon enough she emerges from the Duke's room, a virgin no longer.

Rigoletto vows he himself will bring about Monterone's vengeful curse on the Duke.

He hires Sparafucile to kill him, and before long the Duke (this time disguised as a soldier) is wooing Sparafucile's sister Maddalena with great success. Rigoletto takes Gilda, who still loves the Duke, to Sparafucile's inn so she can see him seducing another woman.

It breaks her heart, but still she loves him. Gilda cannot stay away, and when she figures out what Sparafucile means to do, she finds a terrible way to defy her father and rescue her beloved—and fulfills old Monterone's curse.

Victor Hugo and the Grotesque

The melodramatic plot of Rigoletto began life as a play by the great French Romantic Victor Hugo (left), author of many poems, a handful of plays that have survived better as operas, and such novels as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables. Hugo loved creating convoluted, improbable stories with fascinatingly exaggerated characters; he championed the Romantic revival of interest in Shakespeare, whose wildly emotional plays had fallen from favor in the restrained eighteenth century. During the classical period, art was all about order and the beauty of symmetry. But Hugo appreciated a different kind of beauty, one he found in Shakespearean characters such as Richard III or Caliban: the grotesque.

Grotesque characters are physically vile and repulsive, and frequently wicked to boot: but there is always something charming and sympathetic about them as well. They can be funny as well as scary, tragic and beautiful. One of the greatest twentieth-century grotesques is Tolkien's Gollum. Hugo's great grotesques include Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame; Javert, in Les Misérables; Gwynplaine, in The Man Who Laughs; and Triboulet, who became Verdi's Rigoletto. Verdi loved the opportunity to write music for this twisted character, outwardly so vile and ridiculous, inwardly so tender and full of love. In the two operas Verdi wrote immediately following Rigoletto, he went on to put more grotesques onstage: in Il trovatore, Azucena the demented old gypsy hag both loves and wants to kill the son-who-is-not-her-son; and in La traviata, Violetta is a beautiful courtesan dying the particularly gruesome death of tuberculosis.

Verdi and the Censors
Victor Hugo's play Le roi s'amuse (The King Has Fun) was banned after its first performance in 1832, and not because of its unusual main character (although the audience reportedly had a hard time taking the jester's tragedy seriously). The police shut the play down because it depicted the attempted assassination of Francis I, and it was considered too dangerous to dramatize such a story. People might get ideas.

The police tried to interfere again when Verdi went to turn the play into an opera several years later. At this point in his career, Verdi was getting good at outwitting the censors. A trenchant letter survives, in which he wrote: "A singing hunchback! Will it work onstage? I can't say for sure; but I can say this, if I don't know whether this character will be theatrically effective, then neither do the police."

To get his libretto past the censors, Verdi pulled an old trick: he changed the characters' names and kept the same offensive action. Victor Hugo's play starred Triboulet, deformed jester to King Francis I of France (a notorious womanizer and, incidentally, patron of Leonardo da Vinci). Verdi and his librettist Piave transformed "Saltabadil" into "Sparafucile," changed "Blanche" to "Gilda," and made the king of France a nameless duke of Mantua, a town in northern Italy. (Assuming we're still in the Renaissance, the duke is probably Vincenzo Gonzaga, patron of the first great opera composer, Claudio Monteverdi.) Since they were no longer trying to kill a king, the censors couldn't object.

Because of the revision, a historical play became a mythic opera. The specifics of history—location, year, names—are either absent from the opera or unimportant; the opera could take place at any time, in any place. Because of its mythic nature, Rigoletto is often produced in alternative periods. Jonathan Miller's famous production from the English National Opera set Rigoletto in the world of 1950s New York Italian mafia. Seattle Opera's upcoming production sets the story in Mussolini's Italy.

About the Composer

The greatest Italian composer of opera, Giuseppe Francesco Fortunino Verdi was also a landowner and farmer; a philanthropist; an impossible, pessimistic, grumpy old stick-in-the-mud; and one of the founding fathers of the Italian nation. At the beginning of his life, Verdi was a simple peasant boy, the son of a humble country innkeeper, watching Napoleon's troops flee the fields of northern Italy. At his funeral, eighty-eight years later, 300,000 people burst into song in the streets of Milan as the coffin of this grand old man of Italian opera approached its final resting place. Verdi's music became the life and breath of a new nation and is still acknowledged by many to be the crowning achievement of a venerable and glorious art form.

Verdi was born in 1813, in a tiny hamlet named Le Roncole, south of Parma. In those days the peninsula of Italy was divided into many little kingdoms, all ruled from afar as part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, Verdi was only a baby during the Napoleonic campaigns, during which Parma passed back and forth between France and Austria. One of Verdi's earliest childhood memories was hiding in a church bell-tower with his mother while their town was being invaded by French troops.

The young man showed musical gifts at an early age. So Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy grocer from the nearby town of Busseto, took Verdi under his wing and paid for his schooling and music lessons. As a teenager, Verdi wrote for and conducted the Busseto Municipal Orchestra (not one of Italy's leading musical groups!) and played the organ in church every Sunday in Le Roncole. And when he had absorbed everything Busseto had to offer, Verdi married Barezzi's daughter Margherita and moved to Milan, the opera capital of the world, to continue his studies and try his hand at writing an opera. His first opera was a success. But Verdi's son, daughter, and finally his wife all died while he was working on his second opera, Un giorno di regno, a comedy which flopped. The composer sank into a black depression from which he never really emerged. He swore he would never write another note and lost interest in everything.

The general director of La Scala (the opera house in Milan) convinced Verdi to try his hand at a third opera, and in 1842 Verdi wrote Nabucco, the story of an arrogant Babylonian king who oppresses the captive nation of Israel. The audience at the premiere went berserk and Verdi became a celebrity overnight. To this day, most Italians can sing the familiar "Va, pensiero" chorus from Nabucco, which became the anthem of the struggle for Italian independence from Austria. The success of this opera catapulted Verdi back into the composer's seat. For the next 10 years, he roamed around Italy and Europe, pouring out a string of about 20 operas. These operas are all improbable stories of wild passion set to vigorous and thrilling music. Almost all of them feature sympathetic nationalists toiling under foreign domination, and Italian audiences, still languishing under Austrian rule, readily identified with the characters and passions in Verdi's early operas. Over the years, Verdi became very good at outwitting government censors who objected to his presenting certain kinds of situations (chiefly the murder of kings) onstage.

At the end of his years "in the galleys," as Verdi once called them, the 37-year-old composer bought a farm near Busseto and moved there with Giuseppina Strepponi, a former opera singer whose voice had been ruined. The Verdi-Strepponi relationship (not a marriage) horrified the conservative people of Busseto, especially ifas one biographer has suggestedthe artistic couple gave a child up for adoption. Verdi even ended up disowning his own parents and kicking them out of his house. As his family life was (for the second time) embroiled in catastrophe, Verdi penned three of the greatest operas of all time, all of which scrutinize tormented relationships between parents and children: Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata.

Verdi lived near Busseto in his villa, called Sant'Agata, for the rest of his life, though he made frequent trips to Milan, Rome, Venice, Genoa (his favorite city in Italy), Paris, and places further abroad to oversee premieres of his operas. In 1861 he wrote the opera La forza del destino for St. Petersburg and spent two winters in Russia preparing the first performance. One of his greatest operas, Aida--set in ancient Egypt--received its world premiere in Cairo, not long after the opening of the Suez Canal.

Verdi's name became a political slogan during the war of Italian unification.

When Italy finally united itself as a nation under King Victor Emmanuel II, Verdi was one of the first members of the Italian parliament. He demonstrated his patriotism again by writing a magnificent Requiem in honor of the important Italian novelist and patriot Alessandro Manzoni.

In his last 20 years, Verdi spent much of his time working on his farm. He also founded a retirement home for musicians in downtown Milan; to this day former opera singers and instrumentalists fill its halls. Verdi wrote only one opera in the 1880s and one in the 1890s: Otello and Falstaff, considered by many his greatest operas and the respective pinnacles of Italian tragic and comic opera.

The Music of Rigoletto
Rigoletto is a perfect opera. Verdi took a fascinating, though highly stylized, story and found a way to tell it entirely through music. This music is perfectly proportioned: it never goes on too long, never moves too quickly. It registers every emotion felt by these complicated characters. And every note of it is attractive: singable, memorable tunes for the main characters and terrific material for the orchestra, chorus, and onstage bands.

Rigoletto was Verdi's seventeenth opera, but his first true masterpiece. Up to this point, he had written a lot of operas in the style popular when he was a student, the kind of opera we now call bel canto. In these operas, the plot takes a back seat to great singing. Strict musical forms—including cavatinas, cabalettas, and fabulous concertante ensembles—provide opportunities for fabulous vocalizing; but they interrupt the forward thrust of the story, kill the suspense, and interfere with dramatic realism. Verdi was fed up with the old conventions when he wrote Rigoletto; what's more, he was wealthy enough at this point in his career to risk trying something new.

So he wrote Rigoletto, an opera in which bel canto lyricism is harnessed to serve the plot. Bel canto operas were traditionally divided between recitative, "talky" music that carried the plot, and emotionally expressive arias and ensembles. Sometimes in Rigoletto it's tough to determine where the recitative stops and the aria begins. Verdi's recitatives are more interesting, more beautiful, and more emotional than ever before. And the arias and ensembles, while still lyrically effusive, now add to the dramatic tension instead of relaxing it.

From the first ominous chords of the overture, every note in this opera helps tell the story. Note Verdi's imaginative use of legitimate music (music that would be music even if this were a play): in the first scene, onstage bands play various Renaissance dances at the Duke's raucous party, and in the final scene, Rigoletto's enemies, the male chorus, hum offstage to depict the howling winds, part of a storm so terrifying it's worthy of King Lear. Of course there's great vocal music for the principals: Gilda's famous coloratura aria "Caro nome," the Duke's three arias, and Rigoletto's amazing "Cortigiani," in which he moves from violent anger through pathetic sobbing to eloquent supplication. And they all sing plenty of great ensembles, including the famous quartet.

But the really amazing thing about Rigoletto is how this ironically attractive music underscores an appallingly pessimistic tragedy. Few operas come as packed with great tunes as this one, and few present a bleaker picture of man and the cosmos. Verdi leaves us exhilarated, disturbed, and wanting more.

A Tune for the Tenor
"La donna è mobile," the Duke's catchy aria in Act 3 of Rigoletto, is one of the most famous tunes ever written. Most people who attend Rigoletto will have heard this melody before. At the first performance, however, Verdi took special precautions to make sure the audience was hearing this music for the first time: knowing he had written a gem, he refused to show anyone the aria (including the tenor who was to sing it) until that morning. The tenor learned the tune, sang it that evening, and the audience went wild. The next day, every gondolier in the city of Venice was singing "La donna è mobile," and they're still singing it to this day. The tune is catchy, but brash and overplayed; it therefore makes a perfect theme song for the attractive, shallow Duke.

Verdi (assisted by Lulu, his dog) leads a music rehearsal. As seen by a contemporary cartoonist

Verdi and Parenting
All great Romantic artists end up writing themselves into their works of art. Although Giuseppe Verdi is less guilty on this charge than some (particularly his egotistical German contemporary Richard Wagner), it's clear that stories about tormented relationships between parents and children stimulated Verdi's creativity. Verdi's favorite play was King Lear, Shakespeare's darkest tragedy—all about parents who mistreat their kids and kids who mistreat their parents. Fragments of King Lear turn up in many of Verdi's operas, not to mention his own biography. His relationship with his own parents was complicated and difficult. Two of his children died in infancy, and he may have given another up for adoption.

Verdi understood the importance of good parenting and the importance of honoring fathers and mothers. But he also understood why these things didn't always happen in real life. In Rigoletto he gives us a beautifully loving relationship between father and daughter—although Rigoletto is a terrible father and Gilda a disobedient daughter. Watching the opera, we sympathize with both of them, and with the Duke—and watch with horror the inevitable tragedy that arises from their relationships.

Recommended Recordings:

EMI / Conductor: Tullio Serafin
Rigoletto: Tito Gobbi
Gilda: Maria Callas
Duke: Giuseppe di Stefano

Decca London / Conductor: Richard Bonynge
Rigoletto: Sherrill Milnes
Gilda: Joan Sutherland
Duke: Luciano Pavarotti

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