Rigoletto: Great Music, Some Unpleasant Characters, and a Tragedy
An Impressive Opera
Rigoletto is a classic Italian opera containing some wonderful music. The opera depicts a dystopian world filled with immoral, tragic, and flawed characters. Despite some unpleasantness, it's compelling for many people. It was composed by Giuseppe Verdi and had its first performance in 1851. An exploration of the opera and its music is always an interesting activity.
The photograph above shows a sculpture of Rigoletto, the humpbacked jester in the opera. I took the photo in the Italian Garden in Vancouver, British Columbia. The garden contains other sculptures of leading characters in Italian operas. The sculptures were created in 2000-2001 by Ken Clarke.
Jester: A professional joker or ‘fool’ at a medieval court, typically wearing a cap with bells on it and carrying a mock sceptre.— Oxford Dictionaries
A Brief History of Rigoletto
Rigoletto is based on a play by Victor Hugo. The famous French writer also wrote the novels Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His play was named Le Roi S'Amuse, or The King Amuses Himself. The king was Francis 1, who was a real French monarch of the sixteenth century. Triboulet, the jester in the play, was also a real person.
Hugo's play was banned after only one performance. The French government was horrified by the play's depiction and disrespect of royalty and declared that its plot was immoral. They also objected to the attempted assassination of the king in the plot, which they believed was a dangerous idea to be publicized. Verdi thought that the novel would make a wonderful opera, however.
Verdi moved the setting from France to Italy, changed the king to a duke, and reduced some of the violence in the story. In addition, the attempted assassination of the king was changed to the actual murder of the jester's daughter. Despite these changes, Verdi had repeated problems with censors as he tried to present the opera. It's said that the censors were unhappy not only because of the opera's characters and incidents but also because the Duke—an especially unpleasant individual—doesn't get punished for his misdeeds.
The opera was was first performed on March 11th, 1851, at Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy. It quickly became very popular. The librettist for the opera was Francesco Maria Piave. He wrote the lyrics for several of Verdi's operas. Modern versions of Rigoletto generally take from two hours and thirty-five minutes to two hours and fifty minutes to perform, depending on the length of the intermission.
Multiple sculptures of each opera character can be found in the Italian Garden. Originally the sculptures of Rigoletto were more or less identical, but over time their appearance has changed based on the different conditions that they've experienced.
Act One Synopsis: The Creation of a Curse
Rigoletto is set in the city of Mantua in northern Italy and has three acts. The title character is a jester in the court of the Duke of Mantua. He amuses the duke by making fun of the courtiers, which naturally angers them. The Duke is licentious and enjoys seducing both married and unmarried women. In fact, he seems to be obsessed with the idea of seduction.
In Act One of the opera, a ball is in progress at the court. The Duke sings a rousing song about his love for womanizing. The title of the aria ("Questa O Quella", or This Woman or That) as well as its lyrics tell us that conquest rather than love is important for the Duke.
We discover that the Duke has noticed a young woman in church and is determined that she will be one of his next conquests. The Duke is unaware that the woman is Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter.
The elderly Count Monterone arrives and interrupts the ball. He is angry because the Duke has seduced his daughter. Rigoletto mocks the Count, as his role as jester at the court demands. The Duke orders his soldiers to arrest Monterone. As the Count is removed from the ball, he delivers a curse to both the Duke and Rigoletto. Rigoletto is worried because he believes that the curse has power.
The music in the video below is my favourite rendition of "Questo o Quello" on YouTube. The reaction of the women in the video is very strange, however. The Duke says that all women are the same to him. He also says that he won't give away his heart and that if he loves one woman today he'll love a different one tomorrow. The women seem to be delighted by these ideas.
"Questa o Quello" Sung by Rolando Villazon
Rigoletto Meets Sparafucile
After the curse, Rigoletto returns to the house where his teenage daughter Gilda and her nurse Giovanna have lived for three months. Prior to this time, Gilda lived in a convent. Her life has been very sheltered. Rigoletto loves his daughter very much. He has tried to keep her presence a secret in order to protect her from his enemies, although this attempt hasn't been completely successful. There are rumours that he has a lover in the house.
Gilda is not allowed to leave the house or to let anyone enter it except for her father. One exception is made to her lack of contact with the outside world, however. She is allowed to go to church on Sundays and has become attracted to a man there. She doesn't realize that the man is the Duke.
Rigoletto meets Sparafucile, an assassin for hire, on the way to the house. Sparafucile offers Rigoletto his services and says that he is available when needed. After the assassin has left, Rigoletto sings about the similarity between the two men in a song called "Para siamo" (We are the same). Sparafucile kills with his dagger, and Rigoletto does the same with his tongue.
"Pari siamo" Sung by Cornell MacNeil
Gilda and the Duke Meet
After Rigoletto visits his daughter and then leaves her in the care of her nurse, the Duke arrives. The acceptance of the nurse as a character may require a stretch of the imagination. Gilda is meant to be a teenager, but the role requires a singer with more advanced vocal skills than most teenagers possess. It's generally sung by a soprano long past the age of needing a nurse. Some modern productions get around this contradiction by billing Giovanna as Gilda's companion or her governess instead of her nurse.
The Duke bribes the nurse in order to enter the house, where he sings a love duet with Gilda after pretending to be a student. Bizarrely, Gilda doesn't know the name of her father or even of her mother, who has died. This may be one reason why she is delighted to hear that the "poor student" who visits her is called Gualtier Maidè.
"Love Duet" Sung by Illeana Cotrubas and Placido Domingo
After the Duke leaves, Gilda sings "Caro Nome". The title of this aria is translated as dear, dearest, or sweet name. The name in question is Gualtier Maidè, the pseudonym of the Duke. The aria is meant to be sung gently and quite slowly as Gilda daydreams about her love.
"Caro Nome" Sung by Lisette Oropesa
After the Duke has left Gilda, a group of courtiers arrive in the alley by the house. They plan to kidnap Rigoletto's "lover" to take vengeance on him. Rigoletto returns to the alley, which is now dark. The courtiers tell him that they are going to kidnap Countess Ceprano (who lives nearby) as a joke. When Rigoletto see that the men are masked, he asks for a mask, too. As a courtier puts the mask on Rigoletto, he also places a handkerchief over the jester's eyes as a blindfold. Rigoletto doesn't realize that he has been blindfolded as well as masked. The blindfold and the darkness of the night prevent him from seeing much of what is going on around him.
Rigoletto is led to a ladder and told to hold it so that the men can climb safely. By holding the ladder, Rigoletto actually helps the courtiers to kidnap his own daughter. Gilda is gagged with a handkerchief and can't make sounds as she is pulled down the ladder. Rigoletto eventually reaches up to his eyes and realizes that he is blindfolded. He is horrified when he removes the coverings from his eyes and realizes what he has done. In despair, he thinks of the curse from Monterone.
Act Two Synopsis: A Deplorable Event
Act Two is relatively brief compared to Act One. When he arrives back at court, the Duke is pleased to hear that Gilda has been kidnapped. He meets her in his bedroom. Rigoletto also goes to the court and asks for Gilda to be returned. The courtiers refuse to do this and stop Rigoletto from entering the Duke's room.
When Gilda appears in a disheveled state and rushes into her father's arms, it's obvious what has happened. It's implied that the incident was non-consensual, although this isn't explicitly stated. Gilda tells her father about her meeting with the Duke in their house. She also refers to her "shame" and says that although the Duke has betrayed her, she loves him. She asks her father to forgive the Duke.
The incident and Gilda's response to it may be upsetting for some viewers of the opera. It does lead to a dramatic scene and some interesting music, though, as shown in the video below. In "Si vendetta tremenda vendetta", Rigoletto vows to seek vengeance for the Duke's action while Gilda pleads for his safety.
Leo Nucci is an Italian baritone who is famous for his depiction of Rigoletto with respect to both his singing and his acting. He's played the role hundreds of times. He didn't retire from performing in operas until 2019, when he was seventy-seven.
Leo Nucci (Rigoletto) and Inva Mula (Gilda)
Act Three Synopsis: Making Plans
At the start of Act 3, we learn that Rigoletto has hired Sparafucile to kill the Duke. Once the deed is done, the assassin will deliver the body to Rigoletto in a sack so that he can dispose of it in the river.
Sparafucile's sister is attracted to the Duke. The assassin uses her to lure the Duke to their house, which is also an inn. Rigoletto and Gilda also arrive at the inn, though they remain hidden. Her father hopes to show Gilda how disloyal the Duke is.
The Duke orders wine and sings "La donna è mobile" (Woman is fickle), which is probably the best known aria from the opera for many people. It has a memorable melody. Verdi reportedly guessed that it was going to be popular and tried to keep the tune hidden from the public until the first performance of the opera. Despite hearing the insults about women as the Duke sings and watching him flirt with Sparafucile's sister, Gilda remains in love with him.
The Rigoletto opera is traditionally set in the sixteenth century. The version shown in the video below is set in more recent times, however.
"La Donne e Mobile" Sung by Juan Diego Florez
I prefer the rendition of the aria by Juan Diego Florez, but I like Placido Domingo's too. I've included the Domingo version because it shows the English lyrics as well as the more traditional production.
"La Donne e Mobile" Sung by Placido Domingo
Rigoletto tells Gilda to go home, dress as a boy, and then go to Verona. He plans to join her the next day. A storm then develops, forcing the Duke to stay in the inn overnight.
Maddalena, Sparafucile's sister, knows about the plan to kill the Duke and tries to persuade her brother to change his mind. Sparafucile shows her the money that Rigoletto has already paid him for the murder, which is half of the total amount due. Maddalena suggests that when Rigoletto returns with the other half of the money, her brother should kill him instead of the Duke. Her brother replies that he won't do this because he's not a thief. However, he also says that if someone knocks on the door before Rigoletto, he will kill that person and put them in the sack instead of the Duke.
The people in the house don't realize that Gilda has returned and has been listening to what is going on from outside the house. Determined to save the Duke, she knocks on the door of the inn. Sparafucile stabs her and puts her in the sack. When Rigoletto returns he is given the sack and thinks that his enemy has been defeated. Then he hears the Duke's voice singing "La donna è mobile" in the distance. He opens the sack and is horrified to find his injured daughter. She lives long enough to ask for her father's forgiveness and then dies. The curse has completed its job.
Tragedy and Great Music
The Rigoletto opera is a tragedy on multiple levels. Gilda's death and Rigoletto's loss are horrible. Gilda's isolation in her house and her lack of knowledge about people's behaviour and her parents are very sad, as is Rigloletto's desperate desire to protect her from the world. The scorn that Rigoletto feels from others because of his deformity and his role at court is another tragic aspect of the opera. As some reviewers have said, the opera is psychologically complex.
Gilda's behaviour and the attitude of men towards her could also be viewed as tragic. Her insistence on staying loyal to the Duke despite his behaviour and her willingness to give up her life for him may be disturbing for some people. Her treatment by males—deceit, kidnapping, a forced relationship, and murder—is appalling and disgusting.
Despite the problems, the music, acting, drama, and staging of a Rigoletto production are often very effective. The opera has stood the test of time and the music is loved. Verdi has left a legacy that is appreciated by many people.
© 2017 Linda Crampton