Of the dozen or so operas that I return to continually throughout my life, Giuseppe Verdi has composed perhaps half. Verdi’s powerful work marked a step away from the bel canto style of composers like Gioacchino Rossini and a precursor to the verismo operas of the later 19th century. Verdi in many ways stands in a category of his own as a composer, for reasons too numerous to explain here.
Rigoletto is based on a novel by Victor Hugo, Le roi s’amuse. The action of the opera exposes the cruelty and hypocrisy of Rigoletto, the hunch-backed court jester to the Duke of Mantua. The duke, a profligate libertine, routinely seduces (we might better say, rapes) the wives and daughters of courtiers. Rigoletto cheers the duke on and earns the enmity of the entire court by having at some point mocked fathers or husbands in their humiliation, as well as by making jest of the trauma and social ruin and of the shamed victims. While me might have little sympathy for sycophants who, for the sake of prestige and access to power, seek favor from the duke and place their female loved ones at such risk, Count Monterone stands apart as a representative of an older, more honorable, and waning tradition of nobility. When the duke takes advantage of the count’s daughter, he sets a curse (maledizione) on the Duke and on Rigoletto.
As the opera continues, the duke falls in love with a young woman that turns out to be Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, whom he has hidden away and raised away from the duke’s court so as to protect her from its corruption. When the courtiers learn of this, they kidnap Gilda–and deceive Rigoletto into helping–and spirit her off to the palace, where the duke has his way with her. The next day, the courtiers have their dark revenge as they witness Rigoletto’s understanding of the tragedy that has befallen his innocent daughter. Desperate for revenge, Rigoletto hires an assassin to murder the duke at a countryside inn, but Gilda, naively in love with the duke, foils the plan and is murdered in the duke’s place. As the opera ends, Rigoletto, with his daughter’s corpse in his arms, recalls Count Monterone’s curse.
The music of Rigoletto contains several of the most recognizable songs in all of opera, notably “La Donna E Mobile,” in which the rapacious duke ironically mocks the inconstancy of women. Within hours of the opera’s premiere in Venice in 1851, gondoliers were regaling the canals with their own renditions of it.
As dark and tragic as is the storyline of this opera, its music is truly enchanting and sublime, particularly the quartet from Act III, “Bella Figlia dell’Amore.” Below are some highlights.
The Duke, “Questa o Quella”
The Duke, “La Donna E Mobile”
The Duke and Gilda “Addio, Addio!”
The Duke, Maddalena, Rigoletto, and Gilda, “Bella Figlia dell’Amore”
Cover image courtesy of Opera Space.