Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is one of the most performed of all operas. It was an enormous hit at its opening in Venice in 1851 and has remained an enduring favourite ever since.
Rigoletto’s popularity rests on Verdi’s gift for melody. Every act is packed with memorable tunes: the most famous of these, La donna è mobile, is one of the best known arias of all time and was being whistled in the streets the morning after the première. Verdi had anticipated this: the singers were sworn to secrecy and the tune of La donna è mobile was kept a closely guarded secret until just a few days before opening night. But there are a dozen other memorable numbers that would each be the highlight of a lesser opera, from the love song Caro Nome to the Duke’s ironic cavatinas to the haunting nostalgia of Rigoletto’s Deh non parlare al misero (“don’t speak to the wretched of his lost wealth”).
The plot is unremittingly dark. Rigoletto is a viper-tongued hunchback who is court jester of the womanizing Duke of Mantua and who delights in egging on the Duke to torment his courtiers and seduce their womenfolk. In Act I, he takes a jest too far and is cursed by the aged Monterone, whose daughter has been one of the Duke’s conquests. Rigoletto has a secret: his daughter Gilda, who lives hidden away at his home in the city. When the Duke finds and seduces Gilda, Rigoletto arranges to have him murdered, but the vengeance goes horribly awry and falls on himself instead. The music has two defining themes: the power chord leitmotif of Monterone’s curse (the opera was originally entitled La Maledizione) and La donna è mobile itself, which is the most beautiful and happy tune combined with lyrics of huge irony. In this opera, the bad guy comes out on top, happy and thoroughly unreformed.
The opera is based on Le roi s’amuse, a play by Victor Hugo depicting one of the many womanising episodes of King Francis I of France. The morning after the play’s opening in 1832, the French culture ministry banned further performances on grounds of immorality, provoking a vitriolic (and characteristically lengthy) outburst from Hugo in the published play’s preface. Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto fared little better with the censors of the Austrian government which ruled Northern Italy: after a long dispute, Verdi only succeeded in getting Piave’s libretto approved when several changes had been made, most notably the demotion of the King to being Duke of Mantua: a small dukedom which no longer existed at the time of the opera.
Particularly given that Francis I had been dead for three centuries, the censors’ ire seems extraordinary to modern eyes and ears. As with much opera of the period, Rigoletto requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief. The plot is melodramatic and its twists thoroughly implausible. Gilda, Our Heroine, must come across as frail, innocent and virginal while being sung at full tilt coloratura by a soprano who is usually several stone overweight for the part. And yet the seriousness of the drama comes through, particularly in the character of Rigoletto himself. Hugo describes the King as “a puppet in the hands” of Triboulet the jester, who drives him to commit the majority of his misdeeds. The man is a monster, but he is also a victim of misfortune and circumstance as well as being a doting parent. The best performers of the role bring out the most of these contrasts, no more so than in the Act II sequence in which Rigoletto alternately berates (Cortigiani, vil razza dannata) and cajoles (Ebben, piango) the courtiers who vindictively torment him (see the audio clip below).
With the exception of Gilda, each character in the opera is loathsome, ranging from the amoral Duke to the scheming courtiers to the hired assassin Sparafucile, whose introduction to Rigoletto in Act I is a fabulously dark and inventive trio between bass, baritone and cello. Even Gilda’s too-easily-bribed maidservant contributes to the tragedy. The triumph of the opera is that the music makes us live the lives of its characters - good, bad and ugly - and stays in our heads long after we’ve left the opera house or finished the CD.
Unsurprisingly, Rigoletto has been much recorded over the years. My personal favourite, which features on our Top ten CDs page, is by a young Joan Sutherland with the American baritone Cornell MacNeil in the title role: I think it’s Sutherland at her very best, before she sacrificed all attempts at sounding consonants in a quest for purity of note. However, others swear by her later Decca recording with Sherill Milnes and Luciano Pavarotti or by Tito Gobbi’s snarling, sarcastic performance of Rigoletto in his 1955 EMI recording with Maria Callas (see clip below) and Giuseppe di Stefano. Perhaps the best recording orchestrally is Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1980 rendering with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG, which also features Plácido Domingo in fine form as the Duke.
For a taste of the opera, Youtube abounds with clips of the greats of yesteryear, making it an impossible task to choose the very best. Here are some that I particularly loved.
Mario Lanza gloriously arrogant (if atrociously costumed) as the Duke:
Tito Gobbi outstanding as Rigoletto (also check out the more obscure Romanian baritone Nicolae Herlea):
Maria Callas singing Caro Nome, complete with arty video from a fan:
The photo by Chris Christodolou is of Anthony Michael-Moore and Michael Fabiano in English National Opera's 2009 production, by kind permission of English National Opera
26th January 2010
|Date and venue||Title|
Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric
|Traditional Rigoletto in Baltimore: A tribute to Verdi|
|In the opera world, where loyalty to the libretto is oftentimes taken for poor taste and the use of period sets and costumes is attributed to the lack of a directorial concept, seeing a traditional production becomes a rare (and very comforting) treat. While certain enjoyment may be found in minimalistic sets and street clothes replacing costumes, a traditional production staged with respect for the libretto and the classical staging canons will never be out of style.
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|A dream cast: Rigoletto at the Dresden Semperoper|
|Dating from 2008, the Semperoper’s current production of Rigoletto is quite intriguing. It’s set in what appears to be a swanky 21st-century Berlin apartment – industrial, sparse and effortlessly cool – and in many ways this is an interesting choice. Berlin life is notoriously debaucherous, and this matches well to the Duke’s court in the opera, where sin and vice are not just condoned, but encouraged. There’s also something about the bleak simplicity of the set, which makes it seem almost timeless, emphasising the eternal nature of the emotions played out on stage.|
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Civic Opera House
|Verdi's Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago|
|Of all the mischievous dramatic reversals that line Rigoletto’s plot – the hunchbacked jester tricked into abducting his own daughter, the daughter tricked into loving the brainless Duke (posing as a penniless student), and the terrifying reunion of father and daughter in a scene of murder – is not the most breathtaking, after all, the fact that the opera begins with a convincing display of the debauched status of romance but then confronts us, for the remainder of Act I, with all the innocence and conviction of Gilda’s first love?|
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Lincoln Center: Metropolitan Opera House
|Rigoletto in flashing neon lights at the Met in HD|
|Verdi’s Rigoletto is possessed of a truly tragic plot. A physically disabled jester keeps his innocent daughter locked up except for weekly church visits, a situation which she only lightly resists. Rigoletto believes a curse is to blame for his daughter being killed, although she only dies as a substitute for the man Rigoletto himself has arranged to be assassinated. It’s a tragic, sexist and uncomfortable story which belongs firmly in the 16th century.|
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