Verdi and Rigoletto
In April 1850, Verdi signed a contract for a new opera to be performed for the 1851 Venice carnival season. The subject had not yet been chosen, but he wrote to his librettist, Piave:
April 28, 1850: I have in mind a subject that would be one of the greatest creations of the modern theatre if the police would only allow it. Who knows? at least there are no conspiracies in it. Have a try. The subject is grand, immense and there's a character in it who is one of the greatest creations that the theatre of all countries and all times can boast. The subject is Le Roi s'amuse and the character I'm speaking about is Triboulet. Run about the city and find someone of influence to get us permission to do Le roi s'amuse. I shall expect you at Busseto, but not now, after they've agreed to the subject.
May 8, 1850: Le roi s'amuse is the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times. Triboulet is a creation worthy of Shakespeare!
He instructed Piave to stay as close to the original as possible. It they could not use the original title, it should be changed to La maledizione di Saint-Villier, since the curse was at the center of the plot.
Piave assured him there would be no problem. By October the cast was set, and Verdi was working on the score. But Piave had been wrong. The President of the Teatro la Fenice had doubts, and Verdi was asked to submit a libretto to the Austrian military censors for approval. Verdi realized this meant there might be some problems and indicated he would be willing to make changes. The reaction of the censors was devastating: the King is portrayed as evil; evil triumphs; the curse is too brutal; Blanche's (Gilda's) act is essentially suicide, but is not pictured as a sin, and there is no priest at the end to give her last rites; the body in the sack is objectionable; etc., etc. The Military Governor of Venetia absolutely forbade the presentation of the opera, with or without changes! However, there was no time to prepare a new offering for the carnival, and much of the work on the now titled La Maledizione had been done. Negotiations were opened, and changes agreed upon: the main character would not be a king, but a duke in either France or Italy; Hugo's characters would be kept, but their names would be changed (causing some difficulty, since the music had been written, and substitute names had to be which fit; the Duke was to be enticed to the inn by a ruse, not initiate the visit himself; Verdi would be allowed to decide on the sack. He insisted on Rigoletto's deformity: "A hunchback who sings? Why not?...To me there is something really fine in representing on stage this character outwardly so ugly and ridiculous, inwardly so impassioned and full of love". The changes were made, and although the première was postponed, Rigoletto finally opened on March 11, 1851.
Ironically, the change of the setting from France to Italy meant the audience could relate more closely to the opera, and it was a great success. The critics weren't sure; they didn't know what to think. It was all so new, and in an exception to the usual custom, they had not been allowed to attend the dress rehearsal, thus having no time to consider their reviews. Reactions were varied. Some attacked it as immoral; one called it "a real California a gold mine of transgressions", but another wrote: "[the music is] of a truly new kind...easy, flowing, spontaneous which either speaks softly to your soul, or awakens you to pity, or horrifies you, according to the development of the drama".
Rigoletto soon travelled all over Europe. Parisians, who could not see the play which was its source, raved over it. It reached San Francisco in 1854, opened the new opera house in Cairo, Egypt and was the first opera to be recorded electrically. However, there were still some who disapproved. In one Naples production, the locale was changed to Australia! In the 1920s some women sitting in boxes at the Metropolitan Opera in New York turned their chairs around to protest at the scene in which Gilda emerges from the bedroom after she has been raped. Nevertheless, while critics disagree about some of Verdi's other operas, all agree that Rigoletto is a masterpiece. It is now one of the most frequently performed operas in the repertory.
When Verdi was later asked a few years after its opening which of his operas was his favorite, he replied, "Speaking as an amateur, La traviata, as a professional, Rigoletto". He declared it revolutionary and said it was the best subject he had ever set to music.
Francis I of France
When Francis was born on September 12, 1494, he was the cousin of the reigning monarch and had little chance of reached the throne of France. Then deaths intervened, and he became the heir. At the age of ten he was betrothed, at eighteen was given the command of an army, and at twenty was married . A year later he became king, invaded Italy and captured the city of Milan.
The new king was six feet tall and, except for a large nose and thin legs, was handsome. (He was nicknamed Le Roi Grand Nez.) Although happiest when hunting or jousting, he was active in the affairs of state, was a good conversationalist, ambitious for France and a patron of the arts. His sweet, charitable and pious wife, Claude, gave him seven children, then died. He did not marry again. While he was attracted to women and probably had syphilis as early as 1524, much written of him was probably exaggerated.
One incident early in Francis's reign was to be reflected in Le roi s'amuse. There was a plot against him which involved Jean de Poiters, seigneur de Saint-Vallier (Monterone in Rigoletto) who was arrested and sentenced to death. His head was actually on the block when a messenger arrived with a reprieve. The story started that his rebellion against the Francis was because the king had violated his daughter, Diane de Poiters, and she agreed to become Francis's mistress if her father's life were spared. Like many such stories, it was almost certainly not true. At the time she was the wife of the grand sénéchal of Normandy, the person most probably responsible for his step-father's reprieve. Diane seems to have been faithful to her husband, but after his death, became the mistress of Francis's son Henry II, twenty years her junior.
Triboulet, Francis's jester, has been described as a "deformed monkey-man", the only man in France with a nose larger than the king's. When Francis went to war, the terrified Triboulet was made to travel in the front lines. Jean Marot, portrayed as Marullo in Rigoletto, wrote:
At thirty as wise as the day he was born;
Little forehead, great eyes, a big nose, figure bent.
Long flat stomach, hunched back, to bear weight as he went;
He mimiscked all people, could sing, dance and preach,
Always pleasant, none ever resented his speech.
Hardly the reaction of the Duke of Mantua's courtiers! Triboulet is also mentioned by Rabelais. Pantgruel and Panurge discuss him and decide all France should celebrate a Triboulet Day "in the manner of All Fools'Day". Deformities such as his were very common in Europe at the time, often caused by the tight swaddling of babies.
Francis hoped to become Holy Roman Emperor and stood for election. He soon realized he had no chance and withdrew. All Europe was then composed of the France of Francis I, the Austrian Hapsburg Empire of Charles V, and the England of Henry VIII. France and the Empire were always enemies; Henry vacillated between them. In 1520, Francis formed an alliance with Henry VIII which was cemented on the Field of the Cloth of Gold named for the 300-400 French tents which were covered with velvet and cloth of gold. Days of jousting, tournaments, banquets and dances followed. But the cement was weak; Henry soon signed a treaty with Charles V. The complicated politics of the time also formed the background for the court of Alfonso d'Este of which Ariosto was a member. One of Francis's daughters, Renée married Alfonso's son, Ercole II. Italy's role as a pawn in the conflict between the French and the Empire lasted until the time of Verdi.
Francis's court was very large, with a nucleus of over 500. These included a confessor, almoners, chaplains, doctors, surgeons, an apothecary, barbers, stewards, gentlemen of the chamber, valets, ushers, bread-carriers, cup-bearers, carvers, squires, grooms, pages, secretaries, a librarian, quartermasters, porters, musicians, sumpters, coopers, spit-turners, sauce-makers, pastry-cooks, tapestry-makers and laundresses. There were departments to look after clothing, furniture and houses, and men to serve as messengers and to care for the falcons. The queen had her own household, as did the queen mother. Even the court of the royal children consisted of about 240 people. There were also over 700 soldiers serving as guards and, finally, a group of 'official' hangers-on. The latter included filles de joie suivant la cour (young girls of joy who follow the court). Like all courts of the time, Francis's moved frequently, seldom staying in one place for very long. Such travels were partly to keep in touch with his kingdom and partly because such a large group quickly overcame the sanitary facilities of even the largest palaces. The moves were a huge undertaking; as many as 18,000 horses were needed to convey everything!
The king's day began with the lever or rising, his very public and ceremonial awaking and dressing. He was involved in council meeting and other business until it was time for Mass at 10. The morning ended with the reception of various notables and petitioners. Afternoons were for pleasure, usually hunting, and he gave about two balls a week. He ate alone, the courtiers standing and watching. They also stood while he listened to readings from great literature.
Women had positions of leadership in the court of Francis. His mother, sister, wife and mistress all had an influential part in government and ran things when he was away.
Francis was a great builder and patron of the arts. He built one of the great libraries of Europe and made university education free to all who could benefit from it. He rebuilt the Louvre Palace in Paris and built or remodeled most of the chateaux along the River Loire. His palace at Fontainebleau included a large suite of baths with steam rooms decorated with paintings by the most famous artists of the day. When in Milan, Italy, he had seen Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper and was so impressed he invited the artist to France, settling him in the manor of Cloux, near Amboise. Later Francis acquired da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which now hangs in the Louvre. Another artist to benefit from his patronage was the Italian Benvenuto Cellini, one of the most famous prisoners (and escapees) of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. Cellini made his famous salt cellar, ironically now in Vienna, Austria, for Francis. (Another of Cellini's patrons was Ippolito d'Este the employer of Ariosto). Raphael and Titian were among the many artists who benefitted from Francis's patronage. Unfortunately, access to the court was free to everyone and, as a result, many of his beautiful and valuable items were stolen.
French exploration overseas also started with Francis; his mariners sailed the coast of Newfoundland in the early sixteenth century. In 1524 he sponsored the first voyage of Giovanni da Verrazano, whose name has been given to the narrows in New York Bay and the bridge across them. He called Manhattan Island "a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hill's" and described the Hudson River almost a century before it was 'discovered' by Henry Hudson in 1609. Francis also sponsored the expedition of Jacques Cartier which explored the St. Lawrence river and discovered and named 'Mont Réal'.
In spite of these accomplishments, Francis is now chiefly remembered as a libertine; it is true that he had several acknowledged mistresses and other liaisons. Brantôme (1540 - 1614) wrote of him: "He loved greatly and too much; for being young and free, he embraced now one, now another, with indifference". This is reflected in the Duke's aria Questa o quella! After Francis died of venereal disease at age 52 (on March 31, 1547), two months after Henry VIII, his reputation began to slip and reached bottom in 1832 with Hugo's Le roi s'amuse. Since then, this truly Renaissance man has been rehabilitated, but although his great accomplishments are now appreciated, he will always be remembered as he was portrayed as the amorous Duke of Mantua.
Hugo and Le roi s'amuse
[The librettist to Verdi's Rigoletto was Francesco Maria Piave, who was also the librettist for Verdi's La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra among other works. He was directed by the composer to base his text on Victor Hugo's successful stage play, itself a fictional account of the courtly life of Francis I of France. - NMR]
Victor Hugo based his play Le roi s'amuse on the life of the French
King Francis I. He researched the period carefully, even consulting original
documents. But eventually his own political beliefs took over, and Francis became
a thinly disguised Louis-Philippe. The resulting play just begged to be banned,
and it was. To compound his troubles, minutes before the opening, on November
22, 1832, news ran through the theatre that Louis Philippe had been assassinated.
(In fact, an attempt had been made but the king was not hurt.) The next day
the order was received to close the play, ostensibly because it "contained passages
constituting an outrage on public manners". The real reason was that a monarch
was held up to public ridicule.
The letter Hugo received from the stage manager of the Comédie-Française read: "It is half-past ten, and I have just received the order to suspend the performance of Le roi s'amuse. It is M. Taylor who communicates this command from the Minister". Hugo was furious. Only two years before, the Charter of Abolition of Censorship had been proclaimed. He pointed out that the Charter said that: "The French have the right to publish....Censorship must never be re-established", and that the theatre was only one form of publication; censorship applied not only to print. By banning the play, the Minister, "on his own authority" had deprived the author of his rights and his property.
The management of the Comédie Française tried to get the order reversed. Instead, the council of Ministers ordered the play definitely prohibited. The theatre managers were forbidden to complain, and afraid their licences would be revoked, they obeyed. This could not silence Hugo. In his Preface to the printed version, he wrote a blistering defense of his work:
The play is immoral? Do you think so? Is it the subject? Triboulet is deformed, Triboulet is unhealthy, Triboulet is a court buffoon a three-fold misery which makes him evil. Triboulet hates the King because he is King, the nobles because they are nobles, and he hates ordinary men because they do not have humps on their backs. His only pastime is to set the nobles unceasingly against the King, crushing the weaker by the stronger. He depraves the King, corrupts and stultifies him; he encourages him in tyranny, in ignorance and in vice. He lures him to the families of gentlemen, pointing out the wife to seduce, the sister to carry off, the daughter to dishonor. The King in the hands of Triboulet is but an all-powerful puppet which ruins the lives of those in the midst of a festival. At the moment Triboulet is urging the King to carry off the wife of M. de Cossé, M., de Saint-Vallier reaches the presence chamber, and in a loud voice reproaches the King for the dishonor of Diana de Poitiers. This father, from whom the King has taken his daughter, is jeered at and insulted by Triboulet. Then the father puts out his hand and curses Triboulet. It is from this scene that the whole play develops. The real subject of the drama is the curse of M. de Saint-Vallier....On whom has this curse fallen? On Triboulet as the King's fool? No. On Triboulet as a man, a father who has a heart and has a daughter....Triboulet has but his daughter in the world. He hides her away in a deserted part of the city. The more he spreads the contagion and vice in the town, the more he seeks to isolate and immure his daughter. His greatest fear is that she may fall into evil, since being evil himself he knows the suffering it causes. The same king whom Triboulet is urging to rape, will ravish his daughter. He wishes to kill the King, and so avenge his child, it is his Daughter whom he slays. The curse of Diane's father will be fulfilled on the father of Blanche. It is not for us to decide if this is a dramatic idea, but certainly it is a moral one....If the piece is moral in its invention, is it that it was immoral in its execution? Probably there is nothing immoral in the first and second acts. Is it the situation in the third [in the play the one in the Duke's chamber} which shocks? Is it the fourth act which is objectionable? But when is it not permitted for a king on the stage to make love to the servant at an inn? The Greek theatre...has done it. Shakespeare...has done it. [Authority] wished that the public should stifle this play from a distorted imagination, without hearing or understanding it, even as Othello stifles Desdemona.
In the end, the ban backfired. The printed version became required reading for all who wished to remain au courant. Verdi's version became famous, and Rigoletto was performed over 100 times in Paris while the play was banned. Hugo was irritated, but when he finally heard the opera, agreed it was better than the play. He particularly admired the Quartet./p>
Nothing stopped the play from being produced elsewhere. It was very popular in American under the title The Fool's Revenge", with the actor Edwin Booth in one of his best rôles. Finally, on November 22, 1882, fifty years to the day after its one and only other Paris performance, and with an audience of dignitaries, Hugo could once again see his play.
With a few exceptions, Rigoletto follows Le roi s'amuse closely. The characters are as follows:
|Le roi s'amuse||Rigoletto|
|Francis the First*||The Duke of Mantua|
|M. de Saint-Vallier*||The Count Monterone|
|M. De Cossé||The Count Ceprano|
|M. de Latour-Landry||Borsa|
|M. de Pienne and Clémont Marot*||Marullo|
|Mme. De Cossé||Countess Ceprano|
* Historic characters. See Francis I and his Court. M. de Saint-Vallier was the father of Diane de Poiters, later the mistress of Francis's son, Henry II. While there are stories she had also been associated with Francis, there is no historic basis for this, and it is highly unlikely. One story is that she gave herself to Francis to save her father's life. In truth, it was probably her husband, to whom she was faithful while he lived, who used his influence with Francis to obtain her father's release and pardon.
There is no equivalent of the Quartet in Hugo. At the end of the play, Blanche dies very quickly. People try to drag Triboulet away but, until a doctor comes, he refuses to believe she is dead. Then he screams, "I have killed my child". The ending of the opera is much stronger.
Mantua and its Court
A little town on the banks of the River Mincio was already in existence in the third century B.C. When the Gauls conquered most of northern Italy, they seem to have left Mantua alone. In 1115 the town, athough nominally under the sovereignty of the Holy Roman Emperor, began to form itself as a free city, reaching its zenith under the Dukes of Gonzaga. They reigned from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and their court was one of the most glittering and powerful of the time, especially under Isabella d'Este (1474-1539). She was the sister of Alfonso I of Ferrara and the wife of the Gonzaga Duke, Franceso II (1484-1519). Most of the Gonzagas were patrons of the arts. Their ducal palace is one of Europe's finest, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries, and containing more than 500 rooms. Some of these rooms are tiny, built to scale for the dwarves the dukes kept for amusement. Unmindful of the fact that he never existed, tourists in Mantua can see the "Rigoletto House" at 23 Via San Giorgio. (The house actually lodged priests from the cathedral.) There is also a youth hostel named for the assassin Sparafucile.
But who was the model for Verdi's Duke? In 1851, Piave wrote to Verdi: "It proved necessary to omit the name Gonzaga and say in the cast list simply the Duke of Mantua. It doesn't matter: everyone knows who the ruler was at the time". Unfortunately 'everyone' doesn't know. There are at least five possible candidates, three of whom are the most likely.
Francesco II was the brother-in-law of Lucrezia Borgia and was rumored to have had an affair with her.
His son, Federico (b. May 1500) is another candidate. His godfather was Cesare Borgia, and he spent his boyhood in the Papal court of Julius II. He appears in Raphael's painting, The School of Athens, the boy on the left between the men in the yellow and the green robes. At age 15 he met Francis I in Milan and was invited to the French court. There he had the first of his many mistresses. He was a great collector of art and his lavish court included about 600 people.
Vincenzo I, the fourth Duke (1562-1612) is the most promising candidate. He had a passion for theatre and music, especially women singers. Claudio Monteverdi, who was his court violinist, received a generous annual wage, and Vincenzo granted Mantuan citizenship to him and his children. Monteverdi's La favola d'Orfeo premiered in Mantua in 1607. While Vincenzo's father had a humpback and was very puritanical, the son was just the opposite, a libertine who loved costly pleasures, wine and spirited horses, and who had a dwarf as a trusted friend. At night he and his cronies prowled the streets looking for adventure, and he had no compunction about murdering those who offended him. He was crowned Duke at the age of twenty-five and proceeded to spend all the money his frugal father had left. When the Emperor Rudolph called for help against the Turks, Vincenzo answered, envisioning himself as another Orlando beating back the Saracens. He travelled slowly to Budapest, taking Monteverdi as the head of his martial band but, after one victory, he left and returned to Mantua. His household had one thousand servants, and he loved to wallow among the strong boxes of gold coins amassed by, and previously hidden from him by, his father. Although married, he continued with his amours, protected by his obliging wife who would warn him if one of the husbands seemed to be jealous enough to take revenge.
The Music of Rigoletto
From the beginning of his musical career, Giuseppe Verdi tried to develop opera beyond the structures, rules and dramatic traditions that had bound it for so long. But he had to be careful about any experimentation: opera audiences were notoriously conservative and came to the theatre expecting certain conventions, certain ways of communicating sung drama. A scena or 'scene' had to be built in a certain way, an aria had to have a specific form, heroines were almost always lyric or coloratura sopranos, villains' roles were always performed by basses, heroes were always tenors, etc. One flaunted or experimented with these conventions only at great risk to one's career in the theatre since the audience could always be counted on to 'vote with it's feet' and repay the upstart composer by staying away from his operas.
Verdi's early operas, then, were very much in the mold of the Italian bel canto school at least in terms of sheer structure. Musically speaking even early critics of the composer could tell that this composer was something apart from the standard lyrical output of his contemporaries. But as early as Ernani (1844) he began to experiment with the use of the baritone voice-type (a voice-type not generally recognized up to this point in Italian opera) to communicate a character with far more complex motives than the usual bass-villain, a character far more dynamic and dramatically mercurial than audiences were used to seeing onstage. As the years and the operas went by, Verdi's baritone characters became more interesting, more real; in a word, more human, paralleling Verdi's consistent attempt to make opera itself less artificial and more naturalistic.
Along with the development of the baritone came the development of a musical style that was more natural as well, necessitating a move away from the ossified forms and conservative structures of the past. This development was more or less applied to all elements of the opera including all voice-types (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone and bass) by the composer, depending entirely on the specific dramatic demands of the libretto. And the greatest amount of experimentation in musical characterization can be found in the brilliant middle-period operas La traviata, Il trovatore and Rigoletto, and it is in the latter that we see (and hear!) some exciting new developments.
After the atmospheric prelude or short musical introduction to the opera (does any other composer do so much to establish an emotional environment with so few notes?), we hear party music dance music that is seemingly banal and lacking in subtlety. It could not be more different from the music of the prelude and is almost shocking in its context. And it is certainly not what a mid-nineteenth century audience member should have expected at the beginning of a tragic opera. But Verdi's intention is crystal-clear: he wants us to immediately realize the salacious and libidinous nature of the Duke's court with music as raw and unrefined as the court and its ruler. Rather than have the singers act out the intended seediness (something that would have been impossible in Verdi's day), the composer leads the audience's imagination into creating the appropriate atmosphere by composing music highly suggestive of an amoral gathering of aristocratic party-goers. Overlaying this realistic party music are the first utterances of the singers, a ribald conversation between the Duke and Borsa, one of his courtiers, about the Duke's latest conquests. This kind of conversation would normally have been treated (certainly by any number of other Italian composers of Verdi's time) by more traditional recitative. But Verdi couches the conversation in the context of stage music accompanied, under normal circumstances, by a small band of instrumentalists in the wings or behind the scenery. In this way the composer gives the impression of a real party going on in real time before our very eyes. Verdi's nineteenth century audience, then, became part of the scene and was brought much closer to the stage events. And what better way to create a sense of ducal moral decay than to create music that one could characterize as being as tacky as the court itself? The transition from the dance music to the first number accompanied by the pit orchestra occurs seamlessly as the violins enter in leaping octaves at the start of Questa o quella, the tenor's first aria.
These first three or four minutes of Rigoletto may not seem so unusual to us now, predisposed as we are to hear this familiar music after some 150 years of acquaintance with it. But compare it with some of the more sublime moments from this score (the Rigoletto/Gilda duet from Act II or the famous Act IV quartet, Bella figlia) and we get the point rather quickly: this score is far from uneven, Verdi is simply casting his music to perfectly fit the dramatic situation.
Let's go a bit farther in trying to understand Verdi's musical characterization. Notice that the tenor's solo music is almost all of an assertive, blatantly tuneful nature. Questa o quella, Parmi veder le lagrime and La donna è mobile are all carefully calculated to communicate the character of the Duke, whom we know to be a shallow, vain man whose main interest is not so much involved with statecraft as it is in plotting his next amorous conquest. We also know that his Renaissance court is absolutist; he is a dictator entrenched in the old monarchical system whose courtiers and subjects are under his complete and direct authority. These kinds of political systems are, by nature, highly conservative. It should not surprise us that, although Rigoletto is a very experimental opera for Verdi, there are older, more traditional operatic forms still present: they are to be found in the music of the Duke, or in music with which he is involved. The Duke has, for instance, the only double-aria (Act II's Parmi veder le lagrime being the slow cavatina, and Possente amor the requisite cabaletta) and the only strophic arias (Questa o quella and La donna è mobile) in the entire score. The Duke's duet with Gilda in Act I is also much more reflective of older operatic treatment, with its slow movement (È il sol dell'anima) and consequent cabaletta-like fast movement (Addio, addio, speranza ed anima).
But the real experiment operatically, dramatically and musically is to be found in the character of Rigoletto himself. The jester at the center of Victor Hugo's play Le roi s'amuse was just the complicated, unusual and grotesque character that Verdi was looking for at the time. With a character produced from a fermentation of distrust, trickery, paranoia and paternal love, Verdi had a creation ripe for the new kind of opera that he desired above all to create. One only need listen to Rigoletto's Act I monologue "Pari siamo" to realize that we are in a completely revolutionary operatic world. It is not of the ordered, contained world of the traditional aria, and yet it is not strictly recitative either. Verdi has created a hybrid form, closely akin to the Shakespeare soliloquy in traditional theatre, which gives the character of Rigoletto ample dramatic space to communicate the emotions roiling within him. Notice there is no 'tune' in Pari siamo. We have instead musical gestures, short powerful motives that stop, start, trail off and sometimes (but only sometimes!) sing, acting in real time much the same way the human mind acts in real life. Verdi hinted at this kind of revolutionary musical structure in his early Shakespeare opera, Macbeth, but in this present piece he surpasses all other creations before it. To the mind of a typical nineteenth century aficionado, Rigoletto's first solo utterance must have seemed very strange indeed, as he would surely have expected at this moment a double-aria or even a pure recitative leading us into the duet with his daughter. Rigoletto's character is treated similarly throughout the entire work. Consequently, with all his flaws, he comes across as one of the most human characters in all nineteenth century Italian opera.
The 34 bar prelude starts with the curse theme, the central theme of the opera.
ACT I Scene 1: A grand room in the palace of the Duke of Mantua.
In contrast to the somber prelude, dance music can be heard from offstage as gentlemen and their wives circulate though the room. The Duke tells the courtier Borsa about the woman he has seen in church every Sunday for the last three months. He is impatient to bring his seduction of her to a head, and has discovered she lives in a remote alley where a mysterious man visits her every evening. Among the ladies at the ball is the Countess Ceprano. They comment on her beauty and the Duke decides he will make-do with her for now. Borsa warns the Duke that Count Ceprano may overhear them, but the Duke does not care, one woman is just like another and fidelity is detestable (Questa o quella This one or that). He flirts with the Countess and leads her off stage. Her jealous husband is following as Rigoletto enters and implies Ceprano has horns on his head. He also comments on the doings at court and on the Duke's seductions. An excited Marullo enters; he has discovered that Rigoletto has a mistress!
The Duke and Rigoletto discuss how they can get rid of Ceprano in order to leave the field clear for the Duke. Rigoletto makes several sarcastic and boorish suggestions which an angry Ceprano overhears. The jester's master reproves Rigoletto for always going too far with a joke. Rigoletto just laughs; he knows he is protected from the hatred of the courtiers whom he has antagonized by the Duke. These courtiers decide to take revenge on the jester; they will meet that night to formulate a plan.
Suddenly Count Monterone burst in. His daughter has been ravished by the Duke and he swears revenge. The jester mocks him with a mixture of buffoonery and evil. His lurching music despicts his own hunchbacked deformity (Voi congiuraste You conspired). When the distraught father curses both the jester and the Duke with a father's curse, the worst kind, Rigoletto recoils in horror.
Scene 2: An alley with Rigoletto's house on one side and the Cepranos' on
A shaken Rigoletto enters, still muttering about the curse. He is accosted by Sparafucile an hired assassin for hire (his name is literally Shoot Gun), who offers his services to Rigoletto. He can have his sister lure any victim to his inn and dispose of him there. If Rigoletto has no use for his services just then, he can be found every evening at the same place. After Sparafucile leaves, Rigoletto broods that they are the same: both of them kill, Rigoletto with his tongue and Sparafucile with his dagger (Pari siamo We are the same). He blames his own corruption on nature which made him a hunchback and on the sneering courtiers with whom he serves.
Still thinking about the curse, he enters his house to be greeted by his loving daughter, Gilda. She begs him to tell her about her family; she doesn't even know her father's name! He changes the subject. Has she been out? Only to mass. He finally says her angelic mother felt pity for his sorrows and loved him in spite of his hunchback. She begs to be allowed to see the city and is asked again if she ever goes out. She lies and says no. Terrified that the courtiers who hate him will discovered her existence, Rigoletto begs her to keep her promise and stay home. He summons Giovanna, her companion, and asks if she locks the door every night, admonishing her to keep his daughter safe (Veglia, o donna Watch woman).
Thinking he hears something, he goes out to the street giving the disguised Duke a chance to sneak in and hide. (He slips Giovanna a purse to keep her silent.) To his surprise, he recognizes Rigoletto and realizes it is the jester's daughter upon whom he has designs. When Rigoletto leaves, Gilda regrets that she has lied to her father by not telling him of the handsome young man who has followed her to church. Although he seems noble, she would prefer a poor man (Signor nè principe Neither nobleman nor prince). The duke emerges from hiding and ardently declares his love (È il sol dell'anima [Love] is the sunshine of the soul). He tells her he is a poor student named Gualtier Maldè. As she confesses her love for him, the sound of the conspirators in the street makes her beg him to leave. They sing a long and fond farewell (Addio, addio).
Left alone, Gilda rapturously thinks of her suitor's name (Caro nome Dear name). She can be seen by the masked conspirators on the street who admire her beauty. Suddenly Rigoletto appears, called back by new fears and still thinking of the curse. Identifying themselves, the courtiers approach him and ask him to help abduct the Countess Ceprano. He agrees and asks for a mask of his own. While putting it on they manage to blindfold him. He is told to hold the ladder while they do the abduction, and they gloat that they will now have their revenge on their torturer. As they drag the terrified Gilda away, she drops her scarf. Wondering what is happening, Rigoletto discovers the blindfold and tears it off to find the open door and Gilda's scarf. He utters an anguished La maledizione! The curse!
ACT II: A room in the palace.
The Duke has been to Rigoletto's house and found the door open and Gilda gone. He is distressed, mostly for his loss (Ella mi fu rapita She was stolen from me), but then thinks of her tears (Parmi veder le lagrime I seem to see those tears). When the courtiers come to tell him of the abduction, he realizes the victim is Gilda and rushes off to 'comfort' her (Possente amor Powerful love).
Rigoletto appears, feigning nonchalance and still playing the fool, but furtively looking around for signs of Gilda (This is the first time, the courtiers realize Gilda is the jester's daughter rather than his mistress.) Realizing that the abducted woman is his daughter and that she is with the Duke, the jester first asks for her return. When this is of no avail, he falls to weeping and begs to know where she is. Finally, he abjectly throws off the fool and begs them to restore his daughter to him (Cortigiani Courtiers).
Gilda rushes into the room and throws herself into her father's arms. She confesses all to him (Tutte le feste al tempio Every Sunday in church). He comforts her (Piangi fanciulla Weep child). Monterone is led across the stage on his way to prison, distraught because, in spite of his curse, the Duke remains unscathed. Rigoletto swears that he will seek vengeance for them both (Sì vendetta). Gilda begs him to forgive the Duke; she still loves him.
ACT III: Sparafucile's inn.
We are able to see both the inside of the inn and the deserted riverbank outside. The people in the respective locations cannot hear or see each other. Sparafucile is inside. Rigoletto has brought Gilda, who still believes the Duke loves her, to observe his perfidy for herself. The Duke appears inside, demands a room and some wine and then sings the famous aria La donna è mobile (Woman is fickle). When he returns with the wine, Sparafucile knocks on the ceiling to call his sister. In a quartet, a crestfallen Gilda watches the Duke flirt with Maddalena, and Rigoletto swears revenge (Bella figlia dell'amore Beautiful daughter of love).
Rigoletto, thinking Gilda has finally been convinced of the Duke's true nature, tells her to go to safety in Verona where he will meet her soon. Sparafucile comes out and Rigoletto gives him half of the agreed upon sum. He will return at midnight to collect the body and pay the rest. Maddalena tries to save the Duke by telling him to go but a terrible storm is approaching, and he asks for a room for the night. His sister begs her Sparafucile to spare the handsome young man, but he refuses. She tries to persuade him to kill the jester instead and keep all of the money, but the assassin has pride in his profession. He would never betray a paying customer. Gilda appears outside, dressed as a man, and overhears them agreeing to kill the first person who appears before midnight. Determined to save the Duke's life at the expense of her own life, she knocks at the door. The door is opened, there is a cry, and then silence.
Rigoletto returns, gleefully anticipating his revenge. Midnight strikes and Sparafucile comes out with a sack supposedly holding the Duke's body. The jester is about to drag it to the river when he hears the Duke's La donna è mobile. Horrified he opens the sack to find his dying daughter. She begs his forgiveness and says she will pray for him in heaven (Lassù in cielo There up in heaven). Instead of the customary concerted finale, Verdi ends the opera as Gilda dies and a heartbroken Rigoletto once more cries, La maledizione!
FOOTNOTES ON THE MUSICAL NUMBERS
The music of Rigoletto shows a decided shift from operatic conventions up until that time. Until then, with the noted exception of Wagner, most operas used double arias of cavatina and cabaletta, preceded by a speech-like recitative. A clear distinction was made between the aria and the recitative, and each act ended with a concerted finale. On the other hand, while Rigoletto consists of separate numbers, it is not always easy to tell where one ends and another begins. He himself said, "I conceived Rigoletto without arias, without finales, as an unbroken chain of duets, because I was convinced that was most suitable". Only the shallow Duke has traditional, melodic, show-stopping arias. Instead, the basic unit of the opera is the short scene, in which recitative,arioso and aria blend into each other, heightening the continuity and dramatic effect. In addition, the orchestra often has a melody of its own which is not reflected by the singers.
The short preludeopens with the baleful Curse theme repeated a number of times. Only 34 bars long, it leads into the rather banal music which depicts the frivolity and superficiality of the Duke's court. Dance music, created by a banda, is heard from the offstage ballroom during most of the first scene.
Questa o quella: The lively, regular beat, simple tune and strophic form reflect the lack of depth in the Duke's personality and the traditional nature of the court. The statement that one woman is like another and that fidelity is detestable, demonstrates the amoral nature of the Duke and the corruption of his court.
The scene between Rigoletto and Sparafucile and the following Pari siamo are examples of arioso (short for recitativo arioso) sung with a speech-like metre but more melodic than standard recitative. The somber subject matter is accompanied by mournful strings and woodwinds. In this aria, we begin to see the man behind the clown.
Signor nè principe shows us the child-like quality of Gilda's personality.
È il sol dell'anima is a standard love duet with repeats. However, the audience is aware of the Duke's duplicity, and this adds a certain piquancy to the conventional scene.
Caro nome has only one movement. Although it has some coloratura, Verdi did not want it to showcase agility. It must depict Gilda's essential girlishness, self-conscious and eager, but it needs a strong voice, not that of a soubrette.
Parmi veder le lagrime is the only aria in which the Duke shows any depth. Yet he is not sorry for Gilda but for himself; his new plaything has been stolen from him. He almost convinces himself that he is in love, but his following actions disprove this. The tessiturais very high and is much more demanding of the tenor than the Duke's other arias. It is one of the few standard two-part arias. After the recitative and slower cavatina, there is an interruption for the courtiers to announce their abduction. The faster cabaletta, Possente amor me chiama, follows. There is nothing comparable to this scene in Hugo.
Cortigiani: At his entrance Rigoletto still plays the fool with his half-hearted La ra, la ra, la ra as he searches for Gilda. When he realizes she is with the Duke, he begins his great aria, Cortigiani. It is in three sections, each in a different key, each section revealing a change in Rigoletto's state of mind. At the end he must plea for pity from the very men whom he has treated so outrageously, a truly crushing humiliation. He is completely shattered. This is one of the great tests of a baritone's vocal and acting skills.
In La donna è mobile, the best-known aria from the opera, the Duke states his credo. All women lie; a man who trusts them will have his heart broken; yet no man can be happy without a woman. It is what is known as a canzone, a song. Even in a spoken play it would have been sung. Verdi knew this aria would be popular, so he hid it from the entire cast, even the tenor, until the dress rehearsal, and then enjoined all to secrecy. He was correct. The audience demanded an encore and afterward could be heard singing it in the streets. The words were not original with Verdi. Boccaccio in Filostrato wrote: "Giovane donna è mobile...sempre come foglia al vento". ("A young woman is fickle, always like a leaf in the wind.")
Bella figlia dell'amore is one of the wonders of the opera. Hugo said Verdi improved on the play. Four people are singing together, expressing their own thoughts and emotions, each with a different melodic line, yet singing in harmony. Such an effect is impossible in a spoken play.
Lassù in cielo: Verdi wanted it to sound 'vaporous', a suitable sound for the dying Gilda.