Rigoletto: The Overview:
Italian master composer Giuseppe Verdi, born in 1813, was extremely popular for the beautiful tunes and the psychological depth of the characters in his operas. A wonderful example of Romantic-era music, Verdi’s Rigoletto had a firm grasp of realism and drama which explored the full spectrum of human emotion.
Premiering in 1851 in the city of Venice, it was based on Victor Hugo’s play called “Le roi s'amuse”. It was commissioned by the La Fenice in the year 1850 where Verdi chose Francesco Marie Piave as his librettist. The two had earlier collaborated on various other operas.
Victor Hugo’s “Le roi s’amuse” had been wrought with controversies and censorship since its very inception. When Verdi decided upon it to be the subject of Rigoletto, the Austrian censors considered the concept of an evil monarch who remains unpunished at the play’s conclusion to be unsatisfactory.
It was Luigi Martello, an admirer of Verdi, who proposed that Verdi should modify the character of the French king into a fictional Duke from Mantua. Consequently, the character of the hunchbacked jester Triboulet was renamed to Rigoletto and thus happened the renaming of the play. The term ‘Rigoletto’ was derived from Victor Hugo’s “Rigoletti, ou Le dernier des fous”.
With a rather gripping storyline for its time, Rigoletto faced a lot of trouble with the Austrian censors, as mentioned. The primary character, the Duke of Mantua, was a powerful but immoral man who commits atrocities without suffering any poetic justice at the end. Such harrowingly sad finale didn’t initially meet the standards when it was produced.
A play of moral ambivalence, the Duke’s gritty palace is perfectly balanced with Gilda’s isolation. As Verdi’s first Middle period opera, Rigoletto makes a noticeable departure from traditional Italian aria with its more ordered musical sequences. The storytelling elements are cohesive and perfectly fit with the accompanying tunes and songs.
Rigoletto is divided into three well-defined acts, which are as follows:
The audience beholds a party at the Duke of Mantua’s court. Rigoletto, the court jester, makes fun of Count Monterone and his daughter whom the Duke had seduced. This causes the count to curse Rigoletto which terrifies the latter tremendously. Further, on the act, we are shown that Rigoletto's efforts at protecting his daughter from the Duke’s advances had failed, as she had fallen in love with the lecherous nobleman. When Gilda is kidnapped on the Duke’s orders, Rigoletto finds himself shattered.
The morning after, we watch the Duke’s henchmen in a merry mood, talking about the kidnapping. Rigoletto’s desperation to learn the whereabouts of Gilda leads him to the Duke's palace. He discovers her with the Duke, which fuels his anger and desire for revenge.
Act III commences with Rigoletto hiring Sparfucile, a professional assassin to murder the Duke. Sparfucile's plan is for his sister Maddelena to seduce the Duke and take him to an isolated inn. Falling for the Duke’s charms, Maddelena requests Sparfucile not to carry out the assassination. Sparfucile agrees on the condition that someone else will need to die in the Duke’s stead. Overhearing this, Gilda tragically sacrifices herself at the hands of the assassin. Upon learning this, Rigoletto realizes that Count Monterone’s curse has been realized due to his folly.
Dive deeper into the music side of Rigoletto: The masterpiece which revolutionized opera
Verdi’s genius is well displayed in Rigoletto. A novel composition for the time, the Duke was the only character with the established two-part conventional aria. The second part of this aria is called the Possente amor. There are two other arias for the Duke which resemble canzonettas and are typically light-hearted.
The single aria dedicated to Gilda's character is a dream-like sequence about the Duke which entirely lacks the usual dazzling conclusion. Rigoletto's arias are quite similar to monologues, commanding exceptional vocal resources. Act I, Scene II, is all about a father’s love for his daughter, Rigoletto’s for Gilda, and in Act II, we witness his anger in Tutte le feste al tempio and Si vendetta tremenda vendetta. This very anger drives the rest of the plot and its ultimate culmination into the tragedy Rigoletto is famous for. The final act opens with two world-famous musical pieces- the Duke's La donna e mobile which is a masterpiece and Bella figlia dell'amore, where we see the variations in the characters’ emotions.
A well-orchestrated introduction that sets up a wonderful atmosphere for the audience, is followed by the Duke’s party music. Absolutely different from the prelude music, it also displays Verdi’s love for the unconventional as such melody would have been unexpected from a tragic opera in the 19th century. Verdi hoped to provide us with an insight into the lustful nature of the Duke's celebrations with his music as lewd as him. The composer successfully establishes an environment consisting of amoral aristocrats.
Following this, we come upon a conversation between the Duke and the courtier Borsa about the former’s sexual conquests. Traditional composers would have treated such a topic in a more orthodox manner. Verdi directs the conversation along with stage music, by a modest group of musicians, hidden in the wings. The purpose of creating a very relatable atmosphere is thus successful, keeping in line with Verdi’s usual style.
To create the perfect example of moral ambiguity and set the stage for further twists, the party music smoothly moves into the first piece performed by the pit orchestra. The violins play in octave leaps at the beginning of the subsequent Questa o quella.
In trying to understand Rigoletto, we notice that the first tenor and the later ones display a rather forceful and blatant nature. The tenors Questa o quella, Parmi veder le lagrime and La donna è mobile perfectly elaborate the lecherous Duke’s character to be presumptuous, immoral and lustful. He is revealed to be more of an absolute ruler than one who cares for his people. His days are spent plotting and scheming toward the next amorous encounter.
The relaxed cavatina Parmi veder le lagrime and the cabaletta Possente amor, are the only double aria in the opera. Also, the strophic arias Questa o quella and La donna è mobile have attained significant popularity. Gilda and the Duke’s duet in the first act is characterized by the slow È il sol dell'anima and the fast Addio, addio, speranza ed anima.
Verdi, during the composition of Rigoletto, paid special attention to its namesake. Just as in Hugo’s “Le roi s'amuse”, Rigoletto becomes the element that drives the story forward with his individual actions.
The composer’s genius is well understood upon hearing Rigoletto’s Pari siamo, a monologue. It paints Verdi as one who broke through conventions into a completely novel operatic scene. We do not find the traditional arias surrounded by boundaries in Rigoletto, but a more modern approach for that time.
An example of Verdi’s signature style here is that there isn’t any tune or melody in Pari siamo rather, we have musical caricatures, gestures, singing and acting in very much a real-life manner. The 19th century connoisseurs would have considered Rigoletto's character flawed but extremely real and human compared to the other operatic masterpieces of the time.
Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is an absolute treat for opera lovers. In fact, even for modern music enthusiasts, this piece is acceptable as a great addition to a collection. As Verdi had envisioned a brand new form of an operatic score that breaks conventions, his Rigoletto delivers more than this. Much like other champions in the operatic scene of the Romantic-era, Giuseppe Verdi has and will remain as the one who shifted from ‘acceptable norms’ to gift the world with an exquisite piece such as Rigoletto.
If you like to learn more about Giuseppe Verdi who composed Rigoletto please visit our "About Giuseppe Verdi" page.
- About the opera, Rigoletto on All Music
- About the opera, Rigoletto on The Opera 101
- About the opera, Rigoletto on Study
- About the opera, Rigoletto on Utah Opera
- About the opera, Rigoletto on sdopera.org
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