Opera: Rigoletto

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

Luciano Pavarotti – Questa o quella – Live 1981

The Duke, “La Donna E Mobile

Luciano Pavarotti – La donna e mobile – Live 1981

The Duke and Gilda “Addio, Addio!

Luciano Pavarotti/Christiane Eda-Pierre – Addio, addio – Live 1981

The Duke, Maddalena, Rigoletto, and Gilda, “Bella Figlia dell’Amore

Verdi. RIGOLETTO. 3 act quartet. Placido DOMINGO, Ileana COTRUBAS, Cornell MACNEIL, Isola JONES

Cover image courtesy of Opera Space.

4 thoughts on “Opera: Rigoletto

  1. I SURE LEARNED A LOT from this post! I love listening to the music but usually do not know the opera stories…

  2. Paul – I had the good fortune to see Rigoletto at the MET a few years ago with my Dad. I only wish I had been privy to this slice beforehand. Through your eyes, I can apprecite it anew, and make sense of it as well. Thank you for sharing your appreciation of masterful music through masterful writing; you make opera much more accessible to me by sharing your obvious enjoyment. Bravo!

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