By Margaret Siegrist
It challenges us to confront what makes us avert our eyes and what makes us stare.
Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is a joke gone too far, set to some of the best-known melodies in all of classical music.
One of twelve operas written together by Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave, Rigoletto premiered in Venice in 1851 to immediate success. The plot is closely based upon Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, or “The King Amuses Himself,” a play harshly criticizing contemporary French society, thinly masked as historical fiction. Hugo’s play was swiftly banned by the government after only one performance in 1832. Though they ended up modifying some details, Verdi insisted on securing the material for an opera. He wrote in a letter to Piave, “Turn Venice upside down to make the censors permit this subject!”
Some critics considered the storyline too dark, but the score was indisputably overflowing with musical hits. It’s said that Verdi kept the melody to the Duke’s aria “La donna è mobile” secret, even from the tenor singing the role, until just days before the performance, not wanting to unveil this inevitable public favorite until the premiere. As he’d predicted, the song was a sensation. Supposedly it could be heard hummed and whistled up and down the streets following opening night.
In addition to his signature infectious tunes, Verdi also characterizes each major player in the plotline with unique music. The devil-may-care Duke’s music swaggers, carefree and upbeat. Gilda is easily identified by lovely, lilting melodies, as beautiful and innocent as she is. Accompaniment becomes dangerous, even ominous for the assassin, Sparafucile. Rigoletto’s music is tortured and restless, audibly haunted by Monterone’s curse.
Some of Verdi’s best known works feature characters on the fringes of society brought into the spotlight.
Some of Verdi’s best known works feature characters on the fringes of society brought into the spotlight. Another famous collaboration with Piave, La traviata, stars a courtesan as its beloved heroine and namesake. In turn, Rigoletto brings a hunchbacked court jester out of the shadows. From the beginning, the Duke of Mantua is strikingly jovial in comparison with the brooding title character. Highlighting themes of class struggle and poverty, the opera shows Rigoletto’s persona, sharp-tongued and cruel in court, as an almost unrecognizable version of the devout and doting man he is at home with his daughter. The Duke takes life lightly because he has the means to do so, but Rigoletto constantly contorts in a simple attempt to get by.
The opera also grapples with the factor of Rigoletto’s physical disability. People eagerly rely on him for quips and entertainment, but one minute they’re laughing with him, and the next they’re taunting him for a physical condition beyond his control. He lives a maddening paradox that challenges us to confront what makes us avert our eyes and what makes us stare.